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People listen to Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic speak at a news conference May 2 at Yakima City Hall about two audits of the city of Wapato.

The state Auditor’s Office has turned over eight findings from two recent audits to the Yakima County prosecuting attorney and the state attorney general for review, the state auditor said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

Pat McCarthy said Thursday’s news conference was the first she had called in her almost three years in as auditor.

“The situation in Wapato is deeply concerning,” McCarthy said to about 20 people who had gathered in Yakima’s City Hall. “Findings as significant as these need the attention of the public and a wider audience.”

McCarthy said her office conducts more than 2,000 audits a year, most of which turn out “clean” or involve minor tweaks and easy fixes by city governments.

But Wapato’s eight findings included nepotism policy violations, ethics violations by the city administrator, repeated violations of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, disregard for proper competitive bidding procedures, and a lack of internal controls over cash receipting and finances that led to a significant decline in the city’s financial stability.

“These are serious issues, and resolving them will be challenging,” McCarthy said. “The citizens of Wapato deserve better.”

Wapato’s City Administrator, Juan Orozco, was not present at the Thursday news conference. But evening before, at the city’s regular council meeting, Orozco said that he was looking forward to the results as an “opportunity to grow” and learn from past mistakes.

Revealing the findings

The news conference was held in Yakima because Wapato did not have an adequate facility, said office spokeswoman Kathleen Cooper.

McCarthy said she presented the findings to city administrators Thursday morning in Wapato, at a closed-door meeting from which at least one council member was turned away because of open meetings rules. Those rules require meetings to be public and properly noticed if a quorum of council members is present.

McCarthy said that her office lets local jurisdictions decide whether to have the full council attend. Wapato decided not to do that, McCarthy said. So while some council members were allowed in, others were asked to leave.

Council member Keith Workman, who was excluded from the meeting, said he was tremendously angry and wanted time to organize his thoughts but added that he would comment later.

McCarthy said her staff went over each finding and stressed to city officials that changes needed to be made sooner rather than later.

“They feel they have taken some steps,” she noted. “But they are on notice.”

What happens next

Wapato is on an annual audit system, which means that the findings in the May 2 audit will be reviewed next summer.

The yearlong window gives city officials a chance to fix problems identified by state auditors. Wapato residents who attended the news conference said they could not wait that long.

McCarthy noted that it would take, in part, a call for change from the community to hold Wapato’s elected officials accountable.

“We have been trying,” Wapato resident Frances Ayres called out from her wheelchair in the front row.

Ayres is one of eight plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit alleging violations of the Open Public Meetings Act. Her sentiments were echoed by comments from Wapato resident Doug Milne, who also frequently attends council meetings.

“As citizens, we have tried to do something, but they (the city) will not allow any input,” Milne said.

McCarthy noted that residents can remove an elected official through a formal recall process, while noting that decision would be up to city residents.

She emphasized that her agency is a reporting agency, without enforcement capabilities. She then asked Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic to respond to what would happen once the findings reached his office.

Brusic said until the audit was released Thursday, his agency had been hamstrung as to what he could do, but now had a road map for moving forward.

His office will review the auditor’s evidence and work with law enforcement in the event that the violations could constitute criminal charges, Brusic said.

Several of the auditor’s findings were related to misappropriated city funds: $243,000 of resident-generated utility fees, hundreds of dollars improperly paid for overtime, and a $95,000 yearly contract for Orozco that was found to be in violation of the municipal ethics code.

Though he did not comment on those specific items, Brusic noted that restitution was part of the process in the event of criminal convictions.

“Based on any criminal conviction, we will ask that the money is paid back,” Brusic said.

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

@LexTalamo.