WAPATO — The Wapato City Council took swift and decisive action at its Wednesday council meeting:

  • Authorizing city leadership to take steps to settle two lawsuits and three civil tort claims.
  • Establishing a hiring and expenses freeze.
  • Eliminating the city administrator position created in 2018 along with several other city positions.
  • Issuing a unanimous vote of no confidence in the mayor.
  • Establishing a schedule of twice-a-month council meetings at a new day and time.

The meeting followed Tuesday’s primary election in which Wapato voters sent a clear message to city leadership that they wanted a change.

The city’s current mayor, Dora Alvarez-Roa, received only 29 votes — about 8 percent of votes cast — and none of the current council members seeking re-election advanced to the general election with the exception of Position 1 Councilman Chuck Stephens, who, with just one rival on the primary ballot, automatically advanced.

The atmosphere in the community center Wednesday evening reflected that change, with Wapato residents in attendance speaking freely, being granted time to speak by the approval of council despite Alvarez-Roa’s motion to adjourn prior to public comment, asking questions — and, for the first time in many months, receiving answers.

Another change: For the first time since March, all votes were unanimous. (Council members Joel Torres and Ralph Sanchez were absent.)

Settlements in sight?

After an executive session, the council authorized, by unanimous vote, that Alvarez-Roa could sign off on a settlement offered for the lawsuit alleging violations of the state’s open public meetings act. 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 at that special meeting.

Richard Gilliland, the attorney representing the eight Wapato residents in the case, was present Wednesday. Regarding the possible settlement, he said, “Our priority from the beginning was getting (former mayor and city administrator) Juan Orozco out of power in a way that would impact the city’s budget as minimally as possible, and we crafted the settlement agreement to do that.”

The council also authorized Alvarez-Roa 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 council also authorized the mayor to approve settlements in three civil tort claims — the first step in a civil lawsuit — brought against the city by residents Trent Wilkinson, Dave Simmons and Luz Aguirre, for a possible $3,500, $9,000, and up to $5,000, respectively. The city’s attorney, Julie Norton, noted that those amounts could be negotiated but that the council’s vote allowed the mayor to sign off once they are finalized.

Steps toward stability

How deep of 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 authorized by council, Alvarez-Roa will have to receive council approval before hiring for any vacant positions or authorizing any expenses. 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 clarified for Public Works Director Jeff Schumacker that Schumacker still would be able to respond to public works-related emergencies as needed.

The resolution also eliminated all 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 and eliminated immediately.

The council also authorized the elimination of the city administrator position formerly held by Orozco.

Another step several council members took toward repairing the city’s financial stability was to question the payrolls 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.

Workman asked about the receipts tied to the purchases. Alvarez-Roa told him he could put in a public records request — a response that caused Workman to bristle.

“When we ask for information, it’s to be provided to us,” he said.

Quintanilla-Bautista said she would not approve the expenses without knowing what they were. Both council members also brought up concerns about paid vacation time for Orozco that were not part of his original contract and overtime hours paid to several city employees who they said had not worked the hours.

The council voted to approve the payrolls only after the questionable expenses were removed from the consent agenda item.

Calls for mayor to quit

The payroll discussion resulted in calls from the audience for Alvarez-Roa’s resignation.

Wapato resident Yvette Hester told Alvarez-Roa that the small number of votes 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.”

Frances Ayres, who is running for City Council and also is one of the Wapato residents involved in the public meetings lawsuit, then confronted Alvarez-Roa over her stolid support of Orozco, despite evidence that his actions were devastating to the city.

“You have protected and defended a man who was bankrupting the city, even after the attorney general’s findings,” Ayres said. “You told the council to submit a public records request for Orozco’s credit card bill. You are still defending him, even after his resignation, and it is time for you to step down.”

Workman asked Alvarez-Roa to resign immediately. She refused.

Workman then asked the council to take a vote of no-confidence in Alvarez-Roa, which they did, unanimously.

In a separate action, the council by unanimous vote authorized Workman to serve as mayor pro tempore — meaning he would assume mayoral responsibilities in the event of Alvarez-Roa’s absense.

New dates, times

The council also authorized new meeting times: 7 p.m. at the community center on the first and third Mondays of every month.

Alvarez-Roa, prior to the vote, asked that the meetings be kept at 5:30 Wednesdays as she had a scheduling conflict.

Workman and Stephens said they would not budge on the proposed meeting time, saying that the later time allowed more people to attend.

“This is about transparency,” Workman said.

Stephens added, “We need to do this for the city.”

Public safety

Alvarez-Roa also confirmed that she had terminated police chief Dominic Rizzi and that Michael Campos would serve as acting police chief.

Campos announced at the beginning of the meeting that the department was hiring three new police officers for the reserves: Eduardo Mariscal, Curt Butterfield and Arturo Casas.

“The police department is taking great steps to improve police reserves,” Campos said. “The idea is we come to regroup and get our police force up to staffing levels.”

Fire Chief Bob Clark announced he had hired three new firefighters with a combined 40 years of experience, had two recruits waiting to complete academy training, and had started a high school cadet program. Council voiced its support.

“You’re doing a great job with what you got handed,” Stephens said. “I will do anything I can to help you.”

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.