Port of Kennewick CEO claims retaliation for not stopping Latino medical clinic
Tim Arntzen, chief executive officer of the Port of Kennewick, is seeking $225,000 and to have performance reviews amended as a bitter dispute over a farmworkers clinic extends into its fourth year.
Matthew Crotty, a Spokane attorney representing Arntzen, served the port with a notice of a tort claim on Jan. 4. In it, Arntzen alleges Port of Kennewick Commissioners Don Barnes and Tom Moak retaliated against him after he opposed their efforts to stop a development of a clinic dedicated to serving poor, Hispanic farmworkers.
The claim was distributed to more than 15 people, including port staff, legal counsel, past and present commissioners and business associates. It was shared privately with the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business in advance of the port’s Jan. 11 executive session.
Lucinda Luke, the port’s contracted attorney, confirmed the port received the claim and is evaluating it.
“However, even at this early stage, the port is hopeful that an amicable resolution can be reached,” she said.
The commission discussed it in private and agreed to hire attorney Matt Mensit of the Spokane law firm Witherspoon Kelley to represent it.
The claim asserts two of the port’s three elected commissioners potentially violated federal antidiscrimination laws and the Washington Law Against Discrimination in pushing Arntzen to prevent the nonprofit Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic from buying five acres near the port’s prized Vista Field redevelopment site in central Kennewick.
The port previously owned the five acres and held rights to buy it back when it sold it to Jerry Ivy in 2004. The buyback clause had to be released before Ivy could resell it to the clinic in 2019.
The commission was asked to waive its rights in early 2019.
According to the tort, Arntzen met with Barnes, who left the commission at the end of 2021, on Jan. 28, 2019. He informed him of the clinic’s plans to buy the property.
“Upon hearing that the (Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic) wanted to buy the Ivy Property Commissioner Barnes said words to the effect of ‘you’ve got to stop this,’ ” the tort said.
Arntzen refused, telling Barnes it would be unethical and discriminatory. The tort says Barnes “erupted” at Arntzen when he described the practice as “red-lining,” an illegal form of discrimination.
The ongoing dispute led to a complaint, lodged anonymously by Commissioner Skip Novakovich, that accused Barnes and Moak of violating port policies in their treatment of Arntzen.
The port spent more than $500,000 to investigate and settle the complaint. The investigation concluded both Moak and Barnes violated port policies.
Barnes appealed and the results were overturned by Judge Paris K. Kallas, an independent judge who said the complaint was “unsubstantiated in its entirety.”
Arntzen’s tort notes Kallas’ ruling concerned port policies, not if Barnes’ actions created a “legally defined retaliatory hostile work environment.”
The complaint was just one aspect of the fallout from the farm workers clinic sale, which led to the opening of the $20 million Miramar Health Center in 2021.
Arntzen said he received unwarranted performance reviews and was smeared with untrue statements to the executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association. False statements and conflicting instructions made it impossible to carry out his duties and set him up for the poor reviews, he said.
Arntzen asserts the treatment was designed to compel him to resign.
The port and Arntzen agreed in December to mediate his complaints about his performance reviews.
Crotty, Arntzen’s lawyer, requested the port enter a tolling agreement that would let the two sides work on an out-of-court resolution. If approved, Arntzen will not sue the port before June 1.
The tort seeks $225,000 in damages, reflecting Arntzen’s 2021 salary and benefits package, correction of his 2019 and 2021 performance reviews, expungement of retaliatory performance reviews, authority to provide paid time off to employees who endured the hostile work environment and attorney fees.