Port of Kennewick CEO survives contentious job review

Tim Arntzen, longtime CEO of the Port of Kennewick, narrowly survived a job challenge during a stormy performance review by the port’s divided commission.

The performance review was conducted in public session during the commission’s Nov. 9 meeting, held virtually because of the pandemic. The commission voted 2-1 to accept the review, with the current board president, Don Barnes, voting “no.”

The review came during one of Barnes’ final meetings as an elected commissioner. His term ends in December.

He opted not to seek reelection after Kennewick police Chief Ken Hohenberg filed to run for his spot on the three-person board in the Nov. 2 election. Commissioner-elect Hohenberg will take office in January, around the time he retires from his 40-plus year career with the city, where he is also deputy city manager.

Arntzen’s review began with a warning from Lucinda Luke, the port’s attorney, who advised commissioners that reviews should not catch the subject by surprise. She also advised that discrimination and retaliation are prohibited.

Barnes did not hold back in his written evaluation.

“In my opinion, Mr. Arntzen’s relationship with the Port should be terminated as soon as possible,” Barnes wrote.

The commission has one scheduled meeting remaining in 2021: Dec. 14.

Arntzen received mixed reviews from the other two commissioners. Commissioner Tom Moak called his performance “above satisfactory,” and Commissioner Skip Novakovich rated him “exemplary.”

Arntzen’s relationship with Barnes and Moak fell apart in 2019, when the two questioned if the port should intervene in a private property sale near the port’s prized Vista Field redevelopment in central Kennewick.

The sale went through and Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic built its Miramar Health Clinic at 6531 W. Rio Grande Ave. The $20-plus million clinic opened earlier this year.

The situation worsened after working conditions at the port inspired Novakovich to file an “anonymous” complaint against the other two commissioners. The complaint inspired a protracted investigation, hearing and eventually an appeal that exonerated Barnes.

Arntzen read a prepared statement into the record in response to complaints about his performance by Barnes and Moak. For the first time, he publicly disclosed that Barnes and Moak both wanted the port to block the nonprofit farmworkers clinic from building near Vista Field.

The port could have precluded the sale by exercising a buyback clause it held after selling the property a decade earlier.

“In private conversation, Barnes directed me to keep the clinic out of the Vista Field neighborhood,” Arntzen said, adding that he felt doing so would be wrong and unethical. He said Barnes “erupted” and began looking for ways to fire him.

Barnes countered that Arntzen was lying and said he would prepare his own response.

“There were statements just made by Mr. Arntzen that are not true, that are not even close to true,” he said.

The port’s chief executive officer leads a 12-person staff responsible for maintaining and developing properties that support economic development in an area that includes Kennewick, south Richland, West Richland and the eastern half of Benton City, as well as a large swath of unincorporated Benton County.

Current projects include the Vista Field redevelopment and the Columbia Gardens Urban Wine & Artisan Village near the cable bridge. The CEO works at the pleasure of the elected board of commissioners.

Editor’s note: This story was corrected Nov. 16, 2021, to reflect that Commissioner Tom Moak moved to give the port’s CEO an “above satisfactory” performance review. 

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