Charges of intimidation, retaliation, corruption surround Wapato City Administrator

Juan Orozco says he’s making positive changes for Wapato, first as mayor and now as city administrator.

He’s also become a lightning rod in the community, raising questions about multiple issues, including:

  • His contract as city administrator, which requires the city to pay his $95,000 annual salary for however many years he has left to serve, up to seven, if he is fired.
  • His appointment as city administrator, a newly created position, and the fact the public wasn’t notified about the change in advance.
  • Allegations he intimidates those who don’t agree with him and has used the Wapato police force to “threaten, intimidate and harass” council members and city residents, according to a letter from former officers.
  • Lawsuits filed over public records requests which haven’t been fulfilled and criticism that Orozco requires all communication about the city go through him.
  • The election that put him into office, which has prompted conversations by elections officials statewide about signature procedures.

When questioned, Orozco acknowledges that he and his staff may make mistakes. He’ll ask critics what they are doing for the community, urging them to be positive and spend their time fixing Wapato.

“The ones who aren’t happy are the ones who lost,” he said.

Orozco has served on the Wapato City Council three times since 1999 and has a background as a union organizer. While he is sometimes branded as antagonistic, some council members say they understood him better the more they worked with him. Over the past year, numerous people attended meetings to praise him, his work and his dedication to the community.

Since taking office, Orozco has been the driving force behind many improvements in Wapato, population 5,000. He stepped down from his post as mayor Sept. 4 after less than a year, saying he’d fulfilled all his campaign promises. His successor, Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa, immediately appointed him city administrator with a seven-year contract worth $95,000 annually.

Orozco touts several accomplishments, including claiming $800,000 of savings yearly and upgrades to the cemetery, pool and community center. The city hasn’t published any changes to the 2017 budget, so the figure can’t be verified.

The budget in 2017 came in at about $9 million. The savings reportedly came from closing the jail, combining the public works director and sewer plant manager positions and merging the police and fire chief positions.

The Harvest Festival — organized this year by the city instead of the Lions Club — was more successful, Orozco said. The parade lasted for about an hour, compared to 20 minutes in previous years. And there were more booths and attendees than in the past, he said.

The community center has been fixed up and is open to the entire community, not just as a rental for private gatherings.

Orozco said since it’s been repaired, the number of children each day after school increased from five to 40. Orozco didn’t provide figures to verify the assertion. The city redid rooms used for homework, games and snacks and the floors and walls of the gym. Donors provided new board games.

“It used to be that a kid from Wapato had a better chance of ending up in Walla Walla State Penitentiary than in a Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. ... We’re focused on the future of our kids,” he said.

Improvements to the city-run cemetery have garnered praise from residents during council meetings.

Some 300 headstones covered by grass and other foliage and sunken into the ground were unearthed, and for the first time, families can buy upright headstones and benches.

About $35,000 to repair the cemetery came from a fund to fix a road near a housing project. The project was listed under the city’s Transportation Benefit District priorities. Transportation Benefit District revenue, which is part of car tab fees, is only supposed to be used for roads, streetlights, sidewalks and other transit-related projects.

Orozco said the project’s budget showed the money wasn’t needed anymore and the road project didn’t suffer.

The city-run outdoor pool also is being improved. Renovations started this year and are expected to be completed in the spring or summer of 2019.

Orozco said he wants to enclose it, add bleachers and fix the lights. The hope is to someday host regional swim meets and help the economy.

Criticism

But a group of Wapato and Yakima County residents that are calling themselves Coalition of Wapato Residents for Open Government are organizing to protest what they say is misconduct by the city administration.

Gilberto Lopez, who grew up in Wapato and has degrees in economics and business, is part of the group. Lopez said the decision to appoint Orozco city administrator with a $95,000 annual salary — up from $12,000 as mayor — is what spurred him to act.

He emphasized that he’s not just trying to stir up trouble but feels Wapato residents are being wronged. All the improvements in the city don’t change the fact that residents should be able to question their city government and do so without fear, he said.

“I would be the first one to admit that (Orozco’s) done a lot of things that other mayors haven’t in terms of fixing the community center, the pool, the cemetery,” said Lopez, who now lives in Yakima.

“City officials should still be questioned, regardless of the good things they do in the community,” he continued. “Just because they’re doing good things doesn’t mean it’s all good.”

Lopez and others started the campaign with a meeting at Wapato’s park. Many people asked if the meeting could be held at a home, or even out of Wapato, because they didn’t want Orozco to learn about it and retaliate, Lopez said.

When they got to the park, attendees were clearly tense, Lopez said, looking around and even warning others when they thought they saw Orozco’s car.

“That struck me as really odd because people in the community feel like they can’t hold a meeting in their own town,” Lopez said. “Most recently a lady contacted me saying she had been critical of the city and codes showed up at her business. People feel harassed by him. They’re quite intimidated or scared.”

The election

The discontent has been brewing since Orozco ran for mayor in 2017. He was elected by four votes.

According to a sample ballot handed out by Orozco’s campaign, volunteers encouraged people to vote for Orozco and other council members by giving out sample ballots with those offices already filled in.

Elections officials said they saw the sample ballot when a member of the Orozco campaign visited the office to show what they were doing and make sure it was legal.

While legal, some residents said the effort took advantage of people who hadn’t voted before or didn’t know how, elections officials said.

The election also raised questions, still unresolved, about what happens when a voter’s signature is questioned and multiple forms are returned. When a ballot comes back with a signature that doesn’t match the one on file for a voter, a form is sent to the voters’ house.

The voter is supposed to sign the form and send it back to the county elections office. If the signature matches the ballot, the ballot is counted.

But in the 2017 mayoral race, the elections office received numerous forms with different signatures for one ballot.

The county auditor’s office followed the law and counted all ballots required, according to Yakima County Auditor Charles Ross.

Leadership style

Since then, some residents have expressed frustration about Orozco’s leadership style, among other things.

“I don’t think my frustration was because a (city administrator) position was created, but it was the monetary compensation for the position,” Lopez said. “The main thing about that is it’s extremely high for our community and the level of income that most of the people within the community earn.”

Wapato’s median income is $34,183, according to Data USA.

Orozco said it’s common for other people in similar positions to make as much as he does. He said others on city payroll make similar money, but there hasn’t been a public outcry, which Orozco partly blames on racism.

The average city administrator or manager salary plus benefits for towns with 2,500 to 7,499 people is about $116,820, according to the Association of Washington Cities.

The city administrator runs the day-to-day operations of the city and is employed by the mayor. Wapato hasn’t had one before, but state law allows a city administrator to be hired by a mayor in a strong-mayor form of government without the vote of the people that’s required to change to a city manager form of government.

Under state law, a city council member can’t serve as city manager for one year after they leave office. No similar law applies to a city administrator position.

There are also questions surrounding how Orozco became city administrator. A lawsuit was filed by a group of area residents who say the City Council met secretly prior to appointing him city administrator, thereby breaking the state Open Public Meetings Act.

Orozco said he can’t comment on the issue, citing the pending litigation.

Justin Marlowe, an endowed professor of public finance at the University of Washington, said the appointment process doesn’t seem to have been transparent.

“It sounds like they had a secret, coordinated meeting and violated the state open meetings act,” he said.

Regardless of the appointment process, Marlowe said the city can’t be sure it has the best person for the job because of the process that was followed.

He said cities usually advertise the position and conduct at least one round of interviews with the public involved. By doing that, council members or the mayor can weigh each candidate’s proposed solutions and experience.

“Without that, it’s hard to know if you’re really getting the right solutions to those problems because the person you’re hiring isn’t aware of the full range of options that are out there,” Marlowe said.

He also said he can’t remember seeing a payout like the one in Orozco’s city administrator contract. According to the contract, if Orozco is fired at any time during his seven-year contract, the city will be responsible for six month’s severance pay and the salary for however many years he has left to serve.

“Buyouts and severance are not uncommon,” Marlowe said. “I don’t know if I’ve heard of a city manager contract which is basically guaranteed for the full term of the contract.”

As Lopez has talked to more residents, he’s learned of other accusations against Orozco. Many of those claims became public when 10 former police and corrections officers released a Sept. 16 letter addressed to the citizens of Wapato. According to the letter, Wapato Police Department employees have been used, under Orozco’s direction, to threaten, intimidate and harass council members and city residents.

The writers say Orozco harassed his “personal enemies or those that refused to support his policies and actions.” That came in the form of extra police enforcement, the cancelation of building permits already issued and contact with the employers of people who oppose Orozco, attempting to get critics disciplined or fired, according to the letter.

“Those that speak against him or his administration can anticipate some type of retaliatory city action,” the letter says.

“These attempts utilized his position as the Mayor, and the influence that comes with that position, to silence critics,” it continues.

Orozco called the letter “sour grapes” and said the allegations are unfounded. They come in response to policies he and the police chief enforced, he said.

Janay Thorne, a former city resident, said she has many friends who have been threatened and intimidated by Orozco and other members of city staff and the Council.

Thorne spoke on behalf of them because they’re afraid of retribution. People are scared to say something when they believe their tax dollars aren’t being used in the best way, she said.

“The decision-making is illegal, but the city is paralyzed,” Thorne said.

“The fine folks who live in and around Wapato have businesses and farms, orchards and children in the school district,” she said in an email. “They are stunned and heartbroken that a few ‘opportunists’ have used their community” to take advantage of them.

Among the reports of what residents call harassment is a notarized statement submitted to Yakima County District Court as part of a request for a formal restraining order. Wapato resident Rosemary Reyes alleged Orozco contacted her employer numerous times “demanding” she be fired for commenting on Facebook posts about him, although Reyes contends she didn’t make the posts and doesn’t know who did.

A city resident provided a copy of the statement to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

“I fear if nothing is done he will harass more people of the community just because they don’t agree with him,” she said. “It is our right as citizens to have opinions and I now feel I can’t have an opinion for fear of either losing my job or being harassed in some other way.”

Former mayor and City Council member Tony Guzman was arrested earlier this year by Wapato police, according to an affidavit filed in Yakima County Superior Court.

But charges weren’t filed in Yakima County Superior Court because the act described wasn’t a felony, according to Deputy Yakima County Prosecutor Steve Jackson. Guzman was released that day.

Guzman said he was arrested as retaliation for filing a restraining order against Orozco. The restraining order was denied, as was one Orozco filed against Guzman.

Public records issues

To prove to state authorities they’ve tried to communicate with the city, Lopez’s group is taking an organized approach — submitting public records requests regarding Orozco’s transition to city administrator.

Those requests have largely gone unanswered. And how to properly submit those requests isn’t apparent on the city’s website.

Lopez said he recently attempted to submit a records request online and was redirected to a city web page that allows residents to pay their utilities online.

He said a friend, who is a part of the group and has tried to submit several records requests to the city, told him he had to request records in-person or via email — something not apparent on the city’s website.

The Yakima Herald-Republic, along with at least two area residents, have sent the city several requests for information with little to no reply.

New allegations surfacing regarding Wapato's fulfillment of public records requests

Orozco said he’s been busy cleaning up the city and hasn’t had time to respond to requests for records that seem unimportant. He said the city is in the process of hiring a public records officer.

Residents also have scrutinized city expenditures.

Orozco purchased a GMC Yukon for city use, which he often drives. He said it’s a vehicle used by city employees, just like many other cities in the valley.

He said he used to take it home, because he was worried it would be vandalized if he left it at City Hall, but now leaves it there.

Orozco said the vehicle was obtained by trading in a truck used by former Fire Chief Santos Valdez.

A former city employee says Valdez’s fire truck was purchased using public safety-specific funding.

Access to information

Another issue: City Council members have received packets of information about matters they’re supposed to vote on immediately before Council meetings when those votes should be taken.

Council member Keith Workman has repeatedly voted against issues at council meetings, citing an inability to make an informed decision because he wasn’t given time to study the information. Orozco said previously when the packets of information are late, council members can come to the meetings early if they’d like additional time to review the information.

Orozco also led a charge to reduce City Council meetings from two to one a month and have them at 9 a.m., instead of 6 or 7 p.m.

He said the change allows people who work in the evenings to attend meetings.

Washington Coalition for Open Government board member Toby Nixon previously said the spirit of the state’s open public meetings law is to have meetings when the greatest number of people can attend. And having meetings during the day makes it difficult for people who work during the day to attend meetings.

Orozco said few people attended council meetings when they were held in the evening. Only a few meetings have been held at the earlier time so far, and attendance has been about the same. The first time the council met at 9 a.m., a few people asked the council to change the meeting time back to the evening.

For several months, only a few 2018 meeting minutes and agendas were posted on the city’s website. It has since been updated, and the entire year’s meeting agendas and minutes are posted.

Coalition for Open Government board member Casey Bruner, who is an attorney with Witherspoon and Kelley of Spokane, said speaking generally, having an informed City Council is just as important as having an informed citizenry. And giving council members the agenda even an hour before meetings before doesn’t give them time to do any necessary research — calling residents or experts to get more information, for instance.

If other members of a legislative body seemed to be informed and voting, it raises questions about whether some Council members are meeting and making unofficial decisions outside of meetings, Bruner said.

“If (the leader of a legislative body) has three of five people he likes and gets their thumbs-up on things, and sets a vote without informing others of the substance (of the issue), you could have a violation (of the open meetings law) that way,” he said.

Orozco also has restricted communication among city staff, the council and the public.

According to a memo sent in late December to “All City Department Heads and Staff,” Orozco mandated all communication between city staff and members of the City Council go through his office.

“If a Councilmember wishes to speak with you on a city matter, you should inquire whether the re-quest to speak has been coordinated through my office,” reads the letter, obtained by the Yakima Herald-Republic from a former city staff member.

Orozco also told the Herald-Republic early this year that all communication with city staff members must go through him. While this is not always the case, he refused to give information about a shooting earlier this year aside from confirming it happened.

Bruner said forcing residents, elected representatives and the press to speak with only one person from a government is contrary to the spirit of the state’s open records law.

“If you look at (state law) it says very clearly, ‘The people in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,’” he said.

• Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Alec Regimbal contributed to this report. And Herald-Republic archives were used in this report.

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