Wapato Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa, right, speaks at a March 5 City Council meeting at the Wapato Community Center.

Before she was appointed the mayor of Wapato in 2018, Dora Alvarez-Roa was a teacher. Before that, she was the daughter of a migrant farm family who worked in the fields.

Alvarez-Roa, who was born in Toppenish, spoke only Spanish in her early childhood. She started teaching herself English in grade school and credits her fifth-grade teacher with inspiring her to become a teacher.

Alvarez-Roa said the teacher refused to read the assignments she turned in, saying it “wouldn’t make a difference.”

“She said I was from the wrong side of the tracks and I would not amount to anything,” Alvarez-Roa recalled. “Right then I decided I would become a teacher. Growing up in a home of migrant workers, the struggle was real. But it taught me to be tough and determined.”

Those are traits also necessary for an elected official in Wapato.

Alvarez-Roa won election to the council in November 2017. She was appointed mayor in September 2018 when Mayor Juan Orozco stepped down. She then immediately appointed Orozco as city administrator, a new position, with a salary of $95,000 a year.

Residents have filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the state Open Public Meetings Act at City Council meetings since the two joined city leadership and asked a court to find the appointments were illegal. A 15-page memo from the city’s former attorneys in that case noted that “the facts and law of the case are simply not on the city’s side” and that further defending the city’s position would not be in “good faith.”

The attorneys approached Alvarez-Roa in February to see if she would be willing to fire Orozco, noting that “the chances of settlement could be significantly increased — and further disruption and turmoil within city government minimized — if the city were to terminate Mr. Orozco,” according to the memo.

Alvarez-Roa “declined to do so” and told the attorneys to communicate directly with Orozco, according to the memo.

Alvarez-Roa confirmed Friday that she declined to terminate Orozco, and would never consider doing so.

“I’ve never considered it nor will now. He has done an amazing job in Wapato. We have hired a new law firm and are moving forward,” she said.

A number of other lawsuits and tort claims against the city have been filed in the past year.

Other controversy

Alvarez-Roa has been at the center of other city controversies. In March, she said on her Facebook page that someone left a decapitated baby goat outside her home. A video with the post shows graphic images of a small black and white goat, without a head, left on a roadway several feet from a fenced-in residence.

The video is no longer posted on Alvarez-Roa’s Facebook page.

On April 24, she posted a video on Facebook where she said that city residents had fake Facebook profiles and were “spreading lies” about the city, and that residents brought this false information to council meetings. The mayor then challenged Wapato resident Cindy Goodin— who recently filed a tort claim that alleges ongoing intimidation by Orozco — to post a video of the intimidation on Facebook. Alvarez-Roa said she would give Goodin $5,000 from her “personal savings” if she posted the video.

“If you post it, then you have money. If you don’t post it, then the whole community will know that you were not telling the truth, and that you were lying,” Alvarez-Roa said in the video.

Highlighting the positiveThe Wapato City Council voted in November to reduce the mayor’s salary from $1,000 a year to $1 starting in 2020. At the time, Alvarez-Roa said she didn’t get into politics to make money.

At council meetings, Alvarez-Roa has tried to highlight what she sees at the good being done by city officials. Among the accomplishments she listed in a March interview were lowering utility taxes by 10 percent, cleaning up the city’s alleys, filling “90 percent of the potholes” and adding speed bumps in dangerous areas.

“Give us recognition for what we’re doing rather than just bashing us,” Alvarez-Roa said. “We are doing the best we can.”

Alvarez-Roa earned bachelor’s degrees in elementary education and bilingual education at Heritage University in Toppenish. She went on to receive a master’s degree in professional development and school administration, also from Heritage.

She taught elementary school for 20 years in the Wapato School District, and conducted evening GED classes for about six years at Heritage University. She also teaches anger management classes at the Intersection Church in Union Gap.

Alvarez-Roa said in March she wants what’s best for Wapato because she understands the daily struggles that many residents face.

“I know what it feels like to have nothing. I know what it’s like to be a single mom. I know what it’s like to work two or three jobs, because I’ve done it,” she said. “But I also know how to be positive. My goal is to provide something for the generations to come. And I believe we can do this, if we are united.”

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