Welcome to Wapato, the town of 5,000 facing a citizen revolt
Dysfunction has gripped the city government that oversees the Central Washington community. Some residents aren't having it.
The Wapato City Council meeting at the community center was once again standing room only. Citizens whispered back and forth, media lined the walls, and people held up their phones to record on Facebook Live.
They were prepared for fireworks and the council delivered.
In a shock to Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa, Councilmember Keith Workman called for a vote of no confidence in her leadership. The motion was seconded. It passed and there was a call for her resignation. Tight-lipped, she shook her head no. Citizens shouted from their chairs, calling for her to accept defeat.
This wasn’t the only recent turmoil in Wapato. Just the previous week, Alvarez-Roa had fired the chief of police. When asked why during the same council meeting, she said he wasn’t in the streets enough. Citizens shouted back that they disagreed, and they wanted more explanation. The mayor remained quiet.
A council member flipped through paperwork, questioning her on a charge of more than $3,000 on a city credit card.
By way of explanation, she responded that the credit card belonged to former Wapato Mayor Juan Orozco.
The room exploded. City council members demanded receipts. The mayor declined the request, saying the council members would need to file a public records request. Workman, who is currently running to replace Alvarez-Roa, replied that he wouldn’t be filing any public records requests, that it was the city council’s right to know city expenses.
After more than an hour of back-and-forth between the council and the mayor, as well as a lengthy private executive session, Alvarez-Roa tried to adjourn the meeting without time for public comment. At this point, it was already well into the evening. There was an instant uproar. She acceded.
Citizens stepped up to the podium one by one to speak, almost all critical of the mayor and council. Others beckoned their fellow citizens to grill the mayor and council, yelling out how many minutes were left for others to “get up there.”
There is no doubt that change is coming to Wapato City Hall. The day before the city council meeting, the citizens of the Yakima County city made their displeasure with the current leadership known during the August primary election. The mayor and all but two council members failed to advance to the general election.
The residents of Wapato are angry. Over the past year, as dysfunction has gripped city government and gained the unwanted attention of state authorities, some have turned their anger into action in hopes of taking back their town.
Residents have taken to the streets in protest, filed public record requests and compiled thick packets of documents detailing the alleged misdeeds of Orozco, who left office under a cloud of controversy last year. Even with Orozco gone, those against him say they want a clean sweep of the city council, calling them Orozco’s “minions” and “puppets.”
While the criticism has taken many forms and come from citizens of varying backgrounds, there is evidence that there may be some racism at play. One citizen, a white woman, likened the time under Orozco to a cartel, calling the city government “a bunch of criminals.”
In a town of 5,000, that can make for an uneasy Sunday stroll through town.
From the community center it is a short walk north on Camas Avenue, past the public pool to the Yakama Nation Housing Authority. A few blocks further north is the town’s main drag, a small two-lane street, sprinkled with local shops and anchored by a cluster of municipal buildings: city hall, a very modest police department and a one-story municipal court.
Two miles further north is the on-ramp to Interstate 82 East, which eventually leads to the city of Yakima, 20 minutes away. With just a small exit sign off the freeway, Wapato can be easy to miss.
But recently, the town has been receiving an unusual amount of attention. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that his office was suing Orozco. This followed a finding from the state auditor that resulted in eight counts against the former mayor and the city council for violating laws, including the mayor creating a $95,000 salaried position that he promptly filled himself, as well as the misappropriation of $300,000 over three years and another of $242,000 in 2017.
Orozco can no longer serve in any capacity for the city of Wapato as a result of an attorney general’s settlement, but his ordeal does not appear to be over. Last Tuesday, the former mayor was arrested by the Yakima County sheriff’s detectives on accusations of official misconduct. The following day, he was released, but the Yakima County prosecuting attorney says he is still under investigation.
There’s a lot in the state auditor's findings that didn’t result in charges, but does raise eyebrows. In 2016, the city had cash and investments that added up to almost $2 million. By February of this year, estimates had the city in the red. The city overspent in nine separate funds and reported negative monies for seven funds from 2016 to 2017. Money from the garbage fund was used to renovate a community swimming pool. The sewer fund was raided to pay city legal fees.
Acrimony has followed these findings.
A decapitated baby goat was thrown into the yard of the current mayor in March, multiple police and corrections officers have resigned or quit, windows of a mayoral candidate’s father's car were shot out.
City council meetings are regularly packed. Citizens mill around before and after, talking politics. Several say they were never interested in their local government before this year.
Much of the frustration has focused on Orozco. But even with him now out of office, the tension remains.
That tension isn’t only playing out in city council meetings. Citizens have taken to social media to air their grievances as well. Facebook groups and pages abound, fake profiles are created, then reported and deleted, YouTube channels are dedicated to documenting council meetings on shaky phones. Citizen watchdog groups share packets of information — court documents, newspaper clippings, community statements — detailing alleged threats from Orozco and a police force they say is under his control.
"There's a lot of really nefarious things that's been going on," Yvette Hester says. "It's been happening for a long time."
Hester is a retiree who has lived in Wapato for 25 years. But she wasn’t interested in politics until September 2018, when Orozco took on the city manager role and named Alvarez-Roa his successor as mayor.
Even though Orozco resigned from that role in July, she says, her political involvement has only amped up, especially on social media.
"I never got involved in this whole fight until Labor Day weekend, when they did exchanging of places, Dora and the mayor. I thought, ‘Oh, no way,’ ” she says. “This is just a bunch of criminals taking over the city."
Hester says she believes Alvarez-Roa is under Orozco's influence.
"She only does what he tells her exactly what to do," she says. "She follows his lead on everything. … One time she closed down the city council meeting about five minutes into the 20 minutes we were allowed to ask questions because he didn't like the way it was going. She just hammered the gavel. People were screaming [in protest]."
Alvarez-Roa says Orozco had no influence over her decisions, but that they helped each other in the way that any mayor and city manager would work together.
“We were in constant communication,” she says. “He was always telling me [what] was going on. So what is it that I need to know before I make my decisions? And he says, ‘OK, this is what you need to know,’ and then I’d make a decision. We work together.”
Orozco says he never directed Alvarez-Roa in any way.
“Dora is a very capable, very intelligent, strong woman and it's offensive for people to say. I think it's sexist, and I think it's racist at times, that a Latina female, educated, can't make decisions on her own,” he says. “Dora is very capable of making her own decisions.”
Supporters of Alvarez-Roa have echoed the importance of having a Latina in a position of power in a city with a large Hispanic population, almost 80%, compared with 7% white residents.
Campaign signs devoted to Alvarez-Roa and her favorite candidates seen outside of the Wapato Swimming Pool, Aug. 7, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)
Orozco was born and raised in Wapato. He left to travel around the United States as a union organizer, returning in 2017 to help take care of his mother as she struggled with dementia. He says he never intended to enter into politics, but local business owners approached him and asked him to run, wanting changes for the city that they felt he could deliver.
Controversy has been a part of Orozco’s public life almost from the start. Following the November 2017 election, his opponent, high school teacher Hector Garza, was declared the winner.
Yet only four votes separated the candidates, and election officials had noticed a high number of ballots that were rejected during signature verification.
Yakima County Auditor Charles Ross told the Yakima Herald at the time that the high number of rejected ballots were unusual and "quite frankly, created a lot of discomfort statewide with auditors."
The Washington secretary of state told the Yakima County Auditor's Office to accept the new ballots that had been sent out to voters’ home addresses. By the time Monday rolled around, Orozco had been declared the winner.
Orozco’s time in the mayor’s office would not last long. In September 2018, the mayor called a special meeting without notice, contrary to the 24-hour notice requirement of the Open Public Meetings Act. He announced he had created a new position of city administrator. According to state auditor’s findings, his name had already been filled in on the contract. The city council approved the position, allowed Orozco to take it and voted in city Councilmember Alvarez-Roa as the new mayor. Orozco's salary went from $12,000 as mayor to $95,000 as city administrator. He had written the position for a contract of seven years and, if it ended early (even if he was fired), he was entitled to six months of severance pay.
Alvarez-Roa says if one looks at the surrounding cities, city administrators earn even more.
“Actually, it’s not such a high salary. If you do a wage comparative study for the similar work, it's under what should be paid,” he says. “Without that type of position, nobody was running the city. It doesn't make sense not to have that type of position.”
Since Orozco became mayor, the Wapato Police Department has lost 14 employees to firings or resignations. Only 10 days into Orozco's mayoralty, he fired the city's police chief and accepted the public works director's resignation. In September of the following year, 10 officers — including a sergeant, police officers and corrections officers — released a public statement.
Their message was damning. They said Orozco had threatened and harassed officers and employees into intimidating citizens and directly targeting "his personal enemies or those that refused to support his policies and actions."
In one potent paragraph, they claim his use of the police department as “his ‘personal enforcers' is reminiscent of the days of old when corruption and graft were the norm rather than the rule of law."
Eight incident reports from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office detail allegations against Orozco, accusing him of stalking, harassing and making threats to life and loss of employment.
One of the more serious complaints came from Cindy Goodin, who was a Wapato City Clerk Treasurer when Orozco was mayor. She says she was asked by Orozco to find a woman's address on Facebook because the woman had been filing public record requests. Goodin states in the complaint that Juan hoped the woman “came to the council meeting and that if she spoke, she would have to give her address and he knew a biker chick who had been to prison who would take this woman to the ground, cut all her hair off and cut her face.”
Asked about the allegations against him, Orozco says that he has "never" bullied or harassed anyone.
Not all of the allegations were filed with the county sheriff. Some are simply shared, in conversation and on social media.
Carrie Osorio, a teacher who has lived in Wapato for 13 years, was a vocal critic of Orozco on social media. As a result, she says, Orozco went to her place of work, a church, and asked her boss to pressure Osorio to stop posting about him.
"The whole thing is very scary, that he would try to find out where I live and go to my work and do that. But that's just what he does. He intimidates people,” she says. "When he came to my work, my pastor was pretty much trying to tell me that I needed to not actively oppose him so much. And I couldn't believe it. I was physically sick to my stomach. I said, ‘I can't do that.’ ”
Liz Villa has lived in Wapato her whole life. She has run the town's Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the community center since 2016. When she was ready to update the contract for their meetings, she says Orozco didn't show up for the required walkthrough. She posted about it on social media.
After that, she moved her meetings to the city park. Orozco interrupted a meeting to talk about politics for around an hour, she says.
Her husband, Jose Villa, was present at that meeting. He says that Orozco most likely learned about the meeting after people saw Liz’s post and called in to complain that he hadn’t shown up. They were on Liz’s side, he says.
Liz claims he then told her she needed to go onto her Facebook page and apologize publicly for her post on Orozco, which he saw as inflammatory.
"He said, ‘If you have meetings here [in the park], I'll charge by the hour.’ It's his city, it's his park, he can do whatever he wants," she says. “So I moved them to my personal backyard and home.”
Liz says of the 15 people at that meeting, none are still with the program. They expressed their frustrations to Liz about the encounter and weren’t comfortable returning to a public park, where Orozco could show up.
“He broke my spirit when he took my meetings away from me,” she says. “I want to break these cycles of drug and alcohol, and the meetings were the least I could do. He literally took that away from us."
Jeanna Hernandez, a bookkeeper for the Yakama Nation, thinks her fellow residents aren’t treating the former mayor fairly. She was born and raised in Wapato and then returned 20 years ago. While she didn't vote in the 2017 mayoral election, she supported Orozco's opponent at the time. Orozco creating and accepting the city administrator position was wrong, she says, but she thinks what's happening in the town is a "witch hunt."
"I honestly didn't have respect for Juan Orozco in the beginning, either," she says.
Then, she got to know Orozco outside of his city role. She says she had a troubled past and Juan helped connect her to resources to put her life back together.
"I got to see him in a different light. I wish people could see Juan the way that I have seen him, the way I have learned to respect him,” she says. “You’ve just got to give people a chance. We all have horrible pasts that we’re not proud of.”
But she agrees the town is going through turmoil.
"It really has torn the community apart, and that's really sad because I think a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon [against him],” she says. “It's awful what Wapato has become."
Alvarez-Roa says Hernandez isn’t alone.
“All the business owners, they’ll support him,” she says. “The ones that are the loudest are the ones being heard, but if you go to the other people, the ordinary people, they’re happy with the way that things are.”
She lists the pool, which was renovated using misappropriated funds, as an example of how Orozco improved the town during his time. She says that it was simply inexperience that led to the mishandling of money.
“We had a city clerk that didn’t know where to pull the funds from,” she says. “So, yeah, maybe we did do that, but it wasn’t intentional. It just happened. That comes from a clerk who was not experienced and that’s all there was to it.”
The reasoning from the mayor didn’t sate the public’s desire for transparency. They manifested their opinions at the ballot box and all but wiped the slate clean.
Voters wearing bright blue “Keith Workman for Mayor” shirts were jubilant outside the tumultuous city council meeting, which took place the day after the Aug. 6 election.
Alvarez-Roa had secured only 22 votes out of 256 cast and won’t be moving on to the general election in November. Of the five city council members running again, all but one (who ran unopposed) received the lowest amount of votes in their position. Chuck Stephens in Council Position 1 will move forward alongside Workman, who is currently in the Council Position 7, but vying for the mayor’s office.
For the Villas, the election has given them new hope for their small town. They say they had considered leaving Wapato, until recently.
"With the new election and new faces … we've decided to stay. It can't get worse,” she says. “We have to rebuild this city. It's broken up families and friendships. We need to unite as one, not divided as two."