WAPATO — In a week when voters sent a clear change message to city leaders — including just 30 votes cast for the current mayor — the Wapato City Council acted swiftly:
- Issuing a unanimous vote of no confidence in the mayor.
- Establishing a hiring and expenses freeze.
- Authorizing city leadership to take steps to settle two lawsuits and three civil tort claims.
- Eliminating the city administrator position created in 2018 along with several other city positions.
- Establishing a schedule of twice-a-month council meetings at a new day and time.
As voters issued an electoral rebuke of Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa, they also cast aside all but one council member seeking reelection. And that council member, Chuck Stephens, advanced automatically to the general election because he had just one rival on the primary ballot.
At the community center Wednesday evening, one day post-election, residents spoke freely and were granted time to speak to the council despite Alvarez-Roa’s motion to adjourn before public comment. People asked questions — and, for the first time in many months, got answers.
The city of Wapato, with a population of a little over 5,000, appears to be attempting a political turnaround from a tumultuous period that has seen alleged violations of open-meetings law, deepening financial problems and a lawsuit from the state attorney general accusing the former city administrator of using his earlier position as mayor to unlawfully enrich himself by creating — and accepting — the $95,000 city administrator’s job last year.
Juan Orozco became the city administrator after asking the city attorney in August 2018 to draft an ordinance creating the position and setting the salary. The next month, Orozco called for a special council meeting without giving notice of the meeting’s purpose, in violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, according to a state Auditor’s Office report. The council adopted the ordinance that morning, and Orozco resigned as mayor.
The council then installed Alvarez-Roa as mayor, and she then appointed Orozco as city administrator.
Last month, Orozco resigned, hours before a settlement deadline set by Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Under an agreement with Ferguson’s office, he had to forgo any severance.
After the resignation, Ferguson issued a statement: “Mr. Orozco’s abuse of his authority violated the trust the people of Wapato placed in him.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, audience members called for the mayor to resign.
Resident Yvette Hester told Alvarez-Roa that the small number of votes that she got in the primary showed voters clearly do not want her in the office.
“We want you to leave,” Hester said. “The City Council wants you to leave.”
Also during the meeting, the council authorized:
- By unanimous vote, that Alvarez-Roa could sign off on a settlement offered in a lawsuit alleging violations of the state’s open public meetings law. The settlement required the city to pay $60,000 in attorney fees, to declare a June 15 council meeting as a special meeting, and to acknowledge that a quorum of council members had not been present. .
- The mayor to enter into any settlement agreements related to the lawsuit filed by the state Attorney General’s Office alleging violations of the state’s public open meetings act.
- The mayor to approve settlements in three civil tort claims — the first step in a civil lawsuit — brought against the city by three residents.
How severe a financial crisis Wapato faces is unknown. As of February, the city’s reserves were at a deficit of more than $41,000, according to a state auditor report published in May.
Alvarez-Roa declared that Wapato was officially announcing a financial crisis — an emergency with immediate action required, including a hiring and spending freeze until a time to be determined by the council.
Under a new resolution, Alvarez-Roa must receive council approval before any hiring or authorizing any expenses. (Days before the primary, she fired the police chief who had been on the job six months. She appointed an acting police chief.) Exempt from the spending freeze would be vehicle expenses, including fuel, of up to $150 and police- or fire-related emergencies of up to $500.
Councilman Keith Workman, who led the primary field for mayor with 190 votes as of Thursday, clarified for the public-works director that he could still respond to public works-related emergencies as needed.
The resolution also eliminated seasonal and part-time positions as of Aug. 16. Exemptions include certified pool staff, who will be employed until Sept. 1 — the day after the formal closing of the pool.
Under the resolution, all nonunion, contractual or appointed employees not authorized in the budget or with contract approval from the City Council — including those serving as assistant to Orozco or Alvarez-Roa — also will be defunded.
Several council members also took to questioning expenses Alvarez-Roa asked them to approve.
Councilwoman Brinda Quintanilla-Bautista questioned a $3,000 expense that Alvarez-Roa said was for credit- card expenses tied to Orozco’s account.
When Workman asked about the receipts tied to the purchases, Alvarez-Roa told him he could put in a public-records request.
Workman bristled. “When we ask for information, it’s to be provided to us,” he said.
He then asked Alvarez-Roa to resign. She refused.
He then asked the council to take a vote of no-confidence in Alvarez-Roa, which they did, unanimously.
In another unanimous vote, the City Council authorized Workman to serve as mayor pro tempore — meaning he would assume mayoral responsibilities in the event of Alvarez-Roa’s absence.
The disagreements between council members and the mayor even came down to meeting times. The council approved holding its meetings at 7 p.m. at the community center on the first and third Mondays of every month.
Before the vote, Alvarez-Roa asked that the meetings be kept at 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays as she had a scheduling conflict.
Workman and Stephens said they would not budge, that the later time allowed more people to attend.
“This is about transparency,” Workman said.
Added Stephens, “We need to do this for the city.”