Wapato’s mayor has fired the city clerk-treasurer in the midst of a financial crisis, leaving the city without a point of contact for finances and the budget — and, at the same time, as allegations mount about the misappropriation of funds and destruction of public records.
Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa fired Kim Grimm on Aug. 30, after placing her on paid administrative leave twice.
Grimm was responsible for collecting outstanding funds owed the city, reconciling the city’s bank statements, preparing City Council agenda packets, signing off on passed ordinances and resolutions, helping with public records requests and records management, and overseeing all finance functions, including budgeting, accounting, debt management and financial planning.
She’s been mostly absent from Wapato City Hall since Alvarez-Roa placed her on paid administrative leave for the first time Aug. 19. She returned to work for a day and a half, after which Alvarez-Roa placed her on administrative leave a second time, on Aug. 27, and had her escorted off city property by a police officer.
The position has otherwise been vacant for the past 2½ weeks, and city services and planning have felt the loss.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Public Works Director Jeff Schumaker and Fire Chief Bob Clark both noted that their department credit cards had been declined for work-related purchases.
The city attorney explained that all credit cards were frozen or under evaluation, given about $3,000 of questionable expenses tied to former administrator Juan Orozco’s city credit card account and a number of other purchases through checks signed by unauthorized city personnel. Grimm was working to get the accounts back in order, but with her departure, things had come to a standstill and employees needed to be patient, said Mayor Pro Tem Keith Workman.
Clark asked whom he should work with to start preparing next year’s budget. The deadlines were rapidly approaching, he added. With Grimm gone, the answer to that question also was not clear.
During public comment, two community residents complained about errors in City Hall processing of their water bills for the month: they’d been billed multiple times or their payments had been lost. Grimm had been working on fixing errors in the system before she was terminated, Schumaker noted.
Other city officials have stepped up to fill the gaps. Councilwoman Ira Cantu took on a clerk pro tempore position, allowing her to sign ordinances and resolutions passed by the council. Carmen Jennings, a deputy clerk treasurer, now is handling public records requests and Grimm’s responsibilities in addition to her own.
Grimm also had been at the forefront of reporting possibly illegal activity to investigating agencies, including the state attorney general, state auditor, and county prosecuting attorney, Grimm’s attorney Tim Carlson said.
In July, the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney and Yakima County Sheriff’s Office launched a criminal investigation into city affairs. Orozco was booked into the Yakima County jail on two counts of suspected official misconduct Aug. 13, but he was released the following day after a Superior Court judge ruled there was not sufficient evidence in a probable cause affidavit to hold him. The investigation is ongoing.
Carlson has said repeatedly that the main reason Grimm was placed on leave was an attempt by Alvarez-Roa to prevent her from turning over records requested by law enforcement related to the criminal investigation. In a six-page letter he sent to City Attorney Julie Norton and Workman on Aug. 26, he added that Alvarez-Roa and Orozco attempted to stop Grimm from reporting anomalies tied to possibly illegal activities she noticed while going through the city’s records.
“Most of these had to be reported to the auditor and she followed her legal duties in that regard,” Carlson wrote. “Both the ‘mayor’ and the city (administrator) did everything that they could to thwart that effort. She constantly lived in fear of her dismissal from the job, for doing her job.”
Alvarez-Roa has been a staunch supporter of Orozco and appointed him to the city administrator’s role, which paid $95,000 a year.
Placed on leave
Alvarez-Roa praised Grimm in August, citing the city’s retention of an experienced clerk as one of the steps the city had taken to safeguard city resources. The mayor has not responded to repeated requests for comment about her decision to suddenly terminate Grimm.
A pre-termination disciplinary letter dated Aug. 19, signed by Alvarez-Roa and shared with the Yakima Herald-Republic by Carlson, noted that issues to be addressed at a Wednesday disciplinary hearing for Grimm included alleged dishonesty, releasing city documents without public records requests, insubordination, promoting disunity among staff and disparaging city employees.
The letter stated that Grimm was not to discuss her situation with any city employee, nor was she allowed to be on city property. But she was expected to remain in her home and be available by phone from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. to answer questions on city matters since she was on paid administrative leave. Failure to adhere to those guidelines would be considered insubordination and could result in her being fired, Alvarez-Roa wrote.
Norton, the city attorney, said the letter was withdrawn shortly afterward and Grimm was allowed to return to work Aug. 21. But Carlson, Grimm’s attorney, said Grimm wasn’t sure she wanted to return to what he called the “maelstrom” in Wapato.
Carlson’s letter outlined the reasons why, saying there had been concerns about destroyed public records he didn’t want pinned on Grimm, that nothing protected Grimm from being placed arbitrarily on leave again by Alvarez-Roa, and that Grimm had endured harassment, constant belittling, defamation, and a hostile work environment and likely would continue to do so.
Carlson questioned whether Alvarez-Roa is even a legal mayor, given concerns that the Sept. 4, 2018, meeting when she was appointed violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. Carlson also voiced concerns that Orozco, who resigned July 19 as part of a settlement agreement with the state attorney general, was continuing to pull strings at City Hall.
Given the complexity of situation, Grimm did not return to work until Aug. 26, Carlson said in a follow-up email. Alvarez-Roa initially welcomed her back, but Grimm received several cellphone communications from the mayor later in the day that left Grimm and Carlson unsure of her status, Carlson wrote.
On Tuesday morning, Grimm went back to work. A police officer then escorted her off the property at Alvarez-Roa’s insistence, Carlson wrote. He said the second disciplinary action also resulted because Grimm “continued to insist on legal compliance.”
A vacant position
Carlson was present at the meeting when Alvarez-Roa terminated Grimm. He said Alvarez-Roa offered no verbal or written reasons for firing Grimm at that time.
He plans to file a claim form and then a lawsuit against the city on Grimm’s behalf.
“Kim has been a diligent worker,” he said. “It is very sad when a dedicated public servant is dismissed and everyone stands by and watches.”
If filed, Grimm’s claim will be the seventh outstanding claim facing the city of Wapato, in addition to two ongoing lawsuits. The city now has spent at least $566,207 on fees or settlements related to the lawsuits or claims since September 2018.
Under state law for second-class cities with strong-mayor forms of government, like Wapato, Alvarez-Roa has the right to appoint and fire city employees. But the City Council has authority to put in place protections to ensure that qualified individuals hold those appointed spots, including setting job descriptions and qualifications and requiring council confirmation for certain appointments.
The council moved in August to require its consent for anyone’s appointment as city clerk-treasurer. Norton, following Tuesday’s council meeting, confirmed that anyone Alvarez-Roa appoints as Grimm’s replacement must meet with council approval.
“The council will have to sign off on any appointment, and their decision is not subject to a mayoral veto,” she said.