There should be no debate, no reason for bureaucratic equivocation or harsh comments hinting at persecution, no need to treat constituents like enemies, no excuse whatsoever to use bullying tactics on ordinary citizens from one’s position of power.
But that’s apparently the way they do things in Wapato, at least during the Reign of Juan — the troubled tenure of mayor-cum-city administrator-cum-all-purpose major-domo Juan Orozco.
It is wrong, and it needs to stop.
Last week, the first of what figures to be several days of civic reckoning came for Wapato and Orozco. The city agreed to pay $130,000 to three parties that had filed suits alleging the city violated the state’ Public Records Act by failing to provide documents they had requested and, in some instances, failing even to respond to said requests.
The fact that the city offered to settle, with the squishy legalese escape-clause that it does not have to admit liability, speaks clearly: Wapato knew it was in the wrong. Public records laws are clear — cities must respond no later than five business days upon receiving requests and then follow through, or face state-mandated penalties of up to $100 per day per request — and every place from Aberdeen to Zillah knows the drill.
But instead of just making the payments, admitting culpability and vowing to do better — standard procedure for functional municipalities — Wapato (Orozco, namely) once more chose the low road and attacked the people making the valid charges against them.
Orozco made the outrageous claim that the plaintiffs in the public-records suits — former Wapato Police Chief Dave Simmons, attorney Trent Wilkinson and resident Luz Aguirre — engaged in an orchestrated effort to “shake down” the city. He compounded his mistake by telling a Herald-Republic reporter, “People saw a chance to financially rape our city,” assigning nefarious motives (and a very unfortunate verb choice) to people just seeking transparency in government.
Such incendiary rhetoric is behavior beneath the decorum of a public servant. Not only that, but Orozco’s claim that the three plaintiffs should have just pointed out the city’s clerical errors is disingenuous. City workers know the laws. Orozco knows the laws. As Simmons pointed out, Orozco had been a serial records-requester, himself, before he ascended to the mayoralty in 2017 – and had received such documents.
In fact, in the past, Wapato observers say all requests have been processed without quarrel. So, Orozco’s claim of staff incompetence and lack of training in clerks and public-records officers is not believable. If, suddenly, inquiries are ignored or unduly delayed only after Orozco’s arrival, there likely is a reason for it.
Former police Chief Simmons, who still has not received some of the documents more than six months after requesting them, believes that Orozco is trying to hide the backroom machinations (subject of a separate Open Meetings suit) that might show how his abrupt job switch from mayor to city administrator went down at a Sept. 4 council meeting.
In a dizzying series of developments, Orozco resigned as mayor and was, a few minutes later, appointed by new Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa as Wapato’s first-ever city administrator. The job pays Orozco $95,000 a year, guaranteed for all seven years, even if he is fired. Many of the records requested by the three plaintiffs in the open records suit pertain to that meeting, or secret meetings around that time, or are financial documents that would shed light on the appointment and the allocation of money behind it.
Rather than be forthcoming, Orozco has chosen to be accusatory. It’s a classic counter-puncher’s tactic. At the same time, Orozco also is trying to play the victim, saying that the $130,000 payout will mean that Wapato youth won’t get those new slides at the city pool and that plans to slash residents’ utility bills will have to be abandoned.
The plaintiffs aren’t to blame for that. It’s the city, under Orozco, that did not comply with state law. And it’s the city that should be held responsible if Wapato kids won’t get new slides.
In addition to casting Wapato as the aggrieved party, Orozco has continued a long pattern of bullying behavior toward constituents who question his policies. Aguirre, one of the plaintiffs, said in court filings that Orozco grilled her about why she needed city records and questioned her motives. After Aguirre contacted the state Attorney General’s office, she says Orozco twice contacted her work and asked that she be disciplined for making the requests.
Clearly, the public-records suit exhibits a gross lack of transparency and may mask deeper problems in a city that deserves an open and responsive municipal government. That settlement was no shakedown; it’s a situation that should shake Wapato to its core and lead to a series of civic reforms.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis