Allegations of attorney misconduct have delayed a hearing about possible violations of the Open Public Meetings Act by Wapato city officials.

At the root of those allegations is a single person — a person known for being an open critic of Wapato City Administrator Juan Orozco and the actions Orozco has taken since rising to power in late 2017.

He’s a council member who frequently asks questions at City Council meetings and is not satisfied with the frequent response that he’s “out of order” or that the meeting needs to move forward.

He is Position 7 council member Keith Workman.

In a recent declaration attached to the open public meetings lawsuit, Ayres et al v. City of Wapato, Workman said he has little to no confidence in the firms the city has hired. Instead, he turns to an attorney he trusts for advice.

That attorney: Yakima-based lawyer Richard Gilliland. He also happens to be the attorney who filed the open public meetings lawsuit against Wapato city administrators and several elected officials.

For Workman, sharing information with Gilliland is a matter of doing what’s in the best interest of the public. For Julie Norton, the attorney whose firm has picked up defending the city of Wapato in the lawsuit, it’s a breach of professional conduct.

On May 17, Norton filed a memorandum requesting sanctions against Gilliland, whom she said had violated the rules of professional conduct by directly contacting Workman. The document also was signed by Quinn Plant, the attorney from the firm Menke Jackson Beyer, LLP who is representing Orozco and several other defendants in the case.

Less than a week later, on May 22, Plant filed a memorandum requesting that the courts stop all proceedings in the lawsuit until he and Norton could determine the degree of past information-sharing between Workman and Gilliland.

The next hearing in the case was scheduled for Tuesday, June 4, but has been delayed until July. Gilliland called the allegation about misconduct “almost comical.”

“They’ve known that I have been talking to Keith since the beginning of this case,” he said, referring to Wapato officials. “Nobody’s had an issue until this new firm came on board.”

As for Workman, he filed his own declaration on May 30.

“I do not believe that the city of Wapato can trust the legal advice of Ogden Murphy & Wallace,” Workman wrote. “They appear to be advising the city to just go along with the illegal conduct and actions of the mayor and city administrator.”

Unlawful actions

Orozco became the city’s administrator following two Sept. 4 meetings that the public meetings lawsuit alleges were illegal. The meetings both created and assigned the city administrator position, with its $95,000 annual salary, to Orozco. During those meetings, Councilwoman Dora Alvarez-Roa resigned and was appointed mayor.

She then immediately appointed Orozco as city administrator.

The lawsuit alleges that both of those appointments, given the unlawful nature of the Sept. 4 meeting, should be declared null and void, effectively removing Orozco and Alvarez-Roa from power.

Since the appointments, controversy has swirled around Wapato city government, which became the subject of five lawsuits, 10 civil tort claims and two state auditor’s reports that found “egregious” and unlawful mismanagement.

Three City Council members have started routinely questioning city proceedings, with Brinda Quintanilla-Bautista and Chuck Stephens joining Workman in frequent dissent on city initiatives that ultimately end in 4-3 passing votes.

Of the three, Workman is arguably the most vocal in his frustration.

Workman questioned the city’s policy to start charging for the fulfillment of public records requests at a March 5 council meeting. He contested the city’s decision to extend a temporary building inspector contract to Juan Carlos Martinez, whom he noted had done personal work for Orozco in the past, at an April 3 meeting.

In May, Workman expressed outrage at being excluded from a meeting with city officials and the state auditor that covered eight “serious” findings of mismanagement in 2018.

Pat McCarthy, the state auditor, said in a follow-up news conference that her office leaves it up to municipalities to decide whether to permit the full council body at the meeting. The city of Wapato decided not to allow a “quorum” of council members, as that would require that the meeting also be open to the public, and a council member had been turned away.

Workman said, in his declaration, the decision to exclude him from the meeting was more than that. He said it was a clear attempt to keep information in the “very damning report” from him.

“I believe that it is the clear intent of both Mayor Dora Roa-Alvarez (sic) and Mr. Juan Orozco to control the narrative and limit the information getting to members of the council whom they do not believe support their agenda and actions,” Workman wrote in his declaration.

Seeking advice

Wapato has had a tumultuous relationship with its lawyers in the ongoing public meetings lawsuit.

Attorney Robert Noe represented the city in the case starting Sept. 25, 2018, but resigned in October. Kenyon Disend then picked up the case. But the Issaquah firm withdrew in a document filed April 9, concluding in a confidential memo that it could not in good faith continue to represent the city’s interests when the “facts and law are simply not on the city’s side.” The Yakima Herald-Republic received an unsolicited copy of the document.

On April 1, Wapato hired the Seattle-based firm Ogden Murphy Wallace to act as its official city attorney for five years. Norton, the firm’s lead attorney for the city, picked up the open meetings lawsuit after Kenyon Disend withdrew.

On April 18, a little more than two weeks after Ogden Murphy Wallace formally entered the city’s legal picture, Workman emailed Norton. He wanted to be included on all correspondence involving city legal matters.

“The city has not been transparent nor forthcoming about information involving city business,” Workman wrote. “As a result, it is difficult to make sound decisions. I need to stay informed and be included in legal matters.”

Norton wrote back the next day, telling Workman that her firm typically did not include individual council members on day-to-day communications regarding city business to help avoid Open Public Meetings Act and privilege issues.

“We defer to the mayors and city administrators to keep council members apprised of day-to-day matters,” she wrote. “However, please be assured that we will communicate any significant legal developments to the members of the City Council.”

In her email, Norton also asked Workman to refrain from contacting Gilliland about advice, legal strategies, opinions and any other matter related to the pending lawsuit.

Workman did not respond to the email, Norton said in a May 17 filing that asked the court to sanction Gilliland for his communications with Workman.

Sanctions

Norton and Plant noted in the May 17 joint filing that state law prohibits attorneys from directly contacting clients from the opposing party to gather information they can use in the pending lawsuit.

The purpose for that is two-fold: to preserve the integrity of the litigation and also to protect the defendant, they noted.

The attorneys said sanctions imposed by the court could include disqualifying Gilliland as the residents’ attorney in the case. They said that while they were not seeking that remedy, they reserved the right to request disqualification depending on the degree of confidential information Workman had shared with Gilliland.

The attorneys argued that Gilliland should not be allowed to use any evidence gleaned from his contact with Workman that happened in violation of the law.

Gilliland called the memorandum requesting sanctions “bunk.”

As for Workman, he wrote in his declaration: “I sought out Mr. Gilliland for clarification, guidance and advice after it was clear to me that he was looking out for the citizens of Wapato and what was required by law.”

Workman’s declaration

The Yakima Herald-Republic obtained a copy of Workman’s declaration by accessing open court records.

In the declaration, Workman notes he had been told by the city’s attorneys that they do not represent him individually or personally. So he has the right to seek his own counsel, Workman said.

“I believe that it is my right as a citizen of Wapato and as an elected representative of the people of Wapato to speak with an attorney whom I choose,” Workman wrote.

Norton, in her April 19 email, said he could contact her with any questions. But Workman, in his declaration, said he has “little or no faith in the firms selected by Mr. Orozco.”

Workman notes that Kenyon Disend had to withdraw for ethical reasons. In the confidential memorandum, the attorneys noted they had approached Alvarez-Roa and said that Orozco was at the heart of the lawsuit, and that any acceptable settlement likely would require his removal from power. Alvarez-Roa then directed the attorneys to communicate directly, and only, with Orozco. The attorneys noted this was a “conflict of interest.”

In his declaration, Workman argues there is a “conflict of interest” with Ogden Murphy Wallace representing the case, referencing the email in which Norton indicated the firm corresponds on legal information with a city’s mayor and administrator.

Given that the two people in those positions for Wapato are Orozco and Alvarez-Roa, the subjects of ongoing controversy, Workman called the firm’s practice “monstrous.”

“I am continually frustrated by the legal actions of Ogden Murphy Wallace because they are only talking to, and taking direction from, the very people who have an obvious conflict of interest between their personal interest and the interests of the city,” Workman wrote. “I believe that it is a monstrous conflict of interest and ethical violation for Ogden Murphy Wallace to continue their representation of the city of Wapato, as they appear to be advising the city to just go along with the illegal conduct and actions of the mayor and city administrator.”

What’s next

Norton said she has reached out to opposing counsel about continuing settlement discussions, but there have been no new proposals.

“Absent a trial (which no date has been set) or settlement, we will continue to defend the city,” Norton wrote. “We are one of the most qualified municipal law firms in the state. We take our role very seriously and with the utmost ethical integrity. We understand there is a host of issues facing the city, and it will involve careful planning and patience to resolve many of them.”

A hearing Monday tentatively set the next hearing on the open public meetings act lawsuit for July 10.

In the meantime, Workman said he will continue advocating for open government.

“I want to take this city back,” he said. “And the only way we’re going to do that is transparency and accountability.”

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