The municipal debacle in Wapato offers important lessons for officials throughout Washington. The exposed corruption serves as a testament to the value of strong open-records laws and the vital need for oversight of how local governments use public resources.
The odyssey in this Yakima County city of 5,000 began last September with a brazen act of self-dealing. In the course of a single meeting, then-Mayor Juan Orozco helped create a new city administrator position with a $95,000 salary for seven years, resigned his mayorship and then accepted the new role from replacement Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa.
All this happened at a meeting with no public agenda, in violation of the Washington Open Public Meetings Act. Two state agencies intervened, and a lawsuit and criminal charges against Orozco ensued.
Voters rightly showed their disgust. In the primary, more than 90 percent of them rejected Alvarez-Roa’s reelection bid. They will bear the true costs of this episode. Wapato’s name now stands as a byword for local governance run amok. The costs are still coming in as well. The state auditor in May found murky financial conditions and a $41,000 deficit as of February. The city has been hit by nearly $500,000 in attorney fees and settlements since January 2018, including a $130,000 settlement for Public Records Act violations.
Lawsuits, tort claims and other legal matters will strain city coffers, and the taxpayers on the hook for them, for years. The Open Public Meetings Act was constructed to expose wanton acts of government such as this. Had Wapato’s leaders followed their legal duty and been open with the public about the maneuvers as they were proposed instead of attempting to obscure them, objections — if not outcry — could have stanched the problems before they grew so outsize.
Ex-mayor Orozco agreed to leave local government and drop the ludicrous severance clause in his contract. It is hard to conceive that Wapato voters will ever trust Alvarez-Roa with office again. She should accept the city council’s request and vacate the office immediately, now that the will of her constituency is clear.
The good news is that Wapato’s plight confirms that Washington’s system for accountability worked as designed — eventually. State-agency oversight and the legal system righted the abuses of a local government gone rogue, and voters rejected the poor leadership they received. The high cost paid in the process provides strong evidence that an abuse of the public trust comes with an extraordinary reckoning.