WAPATO, Wash. -- Ten days into Juan Orozco’s tenure as Wapato mayor and the city is without a police chief and public works director.
Orozco said he fired Police Chief Dave Simmons earlier this week and accepted interim Public Works Director Gary Potter’s resignation last week.
Orozco declined to explain why he fired Simmons. He said Simmons’ $81,689 salary was too much for Wapato, where there’s been little, if any, economic growth. But he said salary was not the driving factor in his decision to remove the chief.
“It is in the power of the strong mayor to choose his own chief,” Orozco said. In Wapato, the mayor is also the city’s chief executive.
Orozco’s predecessor characterized the moves as the possible start of a house-cleaning.
“When I became mayor, I never fired anybody,” said Tony Guzman, who was eliminated from the mayor’s race during August’s primary but successfully won a City Council seat in November. “I had a good working relationship with the employees.”
Potter, who was hired on an interim basis in August, said he resigned on his own accord more than a month before his contract was set to expire. He would only say it was for “personal reasons.”
Attempts to contact Simmons were not successful. He did not return calls left on a cellphone, and his home number is not listed.
Orozco was declared the winner of the mayor’s race Dec. 5, after county election officials confirmed signatures on six ballots that had questionable signatures, giving him a four-vote lead over Hector Garza, a Wapato High School teacher. The final vote was 277-273.
Orozco was sworn in the next day to serve the remaining two years of former mayor Jesse Farias’ term. Farias resigned in March and had been replaced by Guzman.
Orozco’s actions were a surprise to some of the council members.
“The police chief was bringing back the department,” said Councilman Stephen Diaz. “The morale was good. I don’t understand why he was let go.”
Councilman Richard Foss, who did not seek re-election, likewise said he thought Simmons was turning the department around and making improvements.
Simmons was placed on a 30-day paid leave in lieu of a month’s notice. While Simmons’ contract states that a new mayor could not remove him without cause during the first 60 days of the mayor’s term, Orozco said that clause violated state law describing a strong-mayor’s powers.
In the meantime, three sergeants have taken over Simmons’ duties as Orozco searches for a new chief.
Orozco said Wapato’s public works staff will also be able to function without a director in the meantime.