Newly Sworn Council 2

FILE — Newly-elected Mayor Keith Workman congratulates Jesse Farias, Margaret Estrada, Judith Owens-Canapo and Caroline Solis, who were sworn in as official council members at the Dec. 2, 2019, Wapato City Council meeting.

The city of Wapato had a year of upheaval in 2019, getting hit with almost a dozen lawsuits, eight findings of egregious mismanagement in a state auditor’s report, and the launching of a criminal investigation into city affairs.

The city’s new mayor and City Council have knocked out a number of the lawsuits through settlement agreements, secured a new insurance provider, re-hired the former city clerk-treasurer to help with the city’s financial matters and committed to working with the new city attorney to rectify the remaining issues. But city leadership still says there’s much work to be done.

Here’s a roundup of some of Wapato’s ongoing affairs for those trying to keep track.

Lawsuits

Wapato closed one of its ongoing lawsuits in January, with the city paying out $185,002.

The civil lawsuit was filed in Yakima County Superior Court in July on behalf of former city employees Robin Cordova and Cindy Goodin. The women alleged wrongful termination as well as ongoing harassment from city administration. The lawsuit closed in January after the women agreed to accept $65,001 each, as well as $55,000 for attorney fees, bringing the city’s payment to $185,002.

Wapato still faces at least seven lawsuits filed based on city actions under former city administrator Juan Orozco, mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa and the previous City Council.

Open government activist Arthur West filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the state’s open public meetings act soon after the state auditor published the May report of its findings. In September, five former or current police or corrections officers filed lawsuits alleging retaliation or wrongful termination. An additional city employee filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment.

Those seven lawsuits still have no hearing dates set.

Attorney David Therrien-Power, whose firm filed the six lawsuits on behalf of former or current city employees, said parties are working toward settlement.

“It is our hope that these cases can be settled so that our clients can move forward and so can the city of Wapato,” he said. “We may have a better idea of the course that these cases will take in March.”

The city also has at least two civil tort claim filings alleging wrongful termination lined up to become civil lawsuits: one filed by City Clerk-Treasurer Kim Grimm and one filed by former deputy clerk Ericha Rocha. The respective attorneys, Kevan Montoya of Montoya Hinckley and Bill Pickett of Pickett Law Firm, declined to comment on the claims.

Investigations and audits

The criminal investigation into city affairs continues, but no updates were available from Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic or Yakima County Sheriff’s Sgt. Judd Towell.

Kathleen Cooper, spokeswoman for the state auditor, said the office will be performing a two-year financial audit, covering 2018 and 2019, and a one-year accountability audit later this year, possibly in late summer or early fall. Cooper said the timing will depend on when the city submits its financial report, which state law requires by May 31.

The office has had two tips about possible wrongdoing submitted to its hotline since May 2019, Cooper said.

“Both are on issues that we will consider when planning the next audits,” Cooper said.

Other city news

Mayor Keith Workman, elected in November, said he’s looking for a permanent chief of police. The city also is looking at several existing buildings that could serve as a new home for the city’s police station, since the current building is more than 100 years old.

At the Wapato City Council’s last meeting, Public Works Director Jeff Schumacker said the practice of “double stacking” graves at the city’s cemetery was damaging adjacent graves and endangering worker safety. The council directed Schumacker and city attorney Julie Norton to review any related resolutions or ordinances and report back.

The Wapato City Council removed Orozco, Alvarez-Roa, and former deputy clerk Rocha from the list of those able to invest the city’s fund at a February council meeting.

The city also is looking into creating and hiring a code enforcement officer to address abandoned buildings and code violations throughout the city.

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