The close Wapato mayor race finally reaches its end - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

The close Wapato mayor race finally reaches its end

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12-5-17 UPDATE:

WAPATO, WA - Last month's mayoral race in Wapato has been so close - you could count the votes separating the two candidates on your hand.

We finally know who will be the next mayor and this whole saga has quite the ending. For the past three weeks, Wapato High School teacher Hector Garza was leading the race, first by just three votes. Then his slim lead cut down even further to just two after a hand recount. 

But on Tuesday afternoon, it's his opponent, Juan Orozco, who is the next mayor of Wapato.

Another canvassing board meeting was held today at the Yakima County Courthouse to re-examine signatures on ballots that had been previously rejected.

In the November election, the signatures on about 30 ballots from Wapato had been questioned. During the first canvassing board meeting, all of them were rejected. But last week, the auditor's office asked state election officials for help. 

During today's meeting, six ballots were accepted. All of them turned out to be votes for Orozco, and his six vote swing put him at 277 votes and Garza at 273.

"My commitment to voters, regardless of what type of voter you are, I would hope that any voter that came today watched a process that was very transparent, very obvious, and it's serving their best interest," said Charles Ross, Yakima County Auditor.

"I want to thank the Secretary of State's Office and the Yakima County Elections Department for doing their due diligence and seeing that the people of Wapato's voices are heard," Orozco said.

The results have been certified and are already on the election website, so it's finally the end of a race that has split the Wapato community.

Now Orozco will get to work. He says some of the things he wants to fix in the City of Wapato is poor road conditions and what he calls outrageous water taxes for families living in the community.

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ORIGINAL STORY:

WAPATO, WA - Two weeks after the general election, we still don't know who won the mayor's race in Wapato. Less than five votes separate the two candidates, and reporter Veronica Padilla talked with both of them about the slim margin.

"When you run for office you're never guaranteed to win," said Juan Orozco. "It's democracy in action, I think it's a wonderful thing that people have come out to vote."

Orozco still hopes he will be Wapato's next mayor. He's just three votes behind Wapato High School teacher Hector Garza.

"This is a great opportunity for me to serve my community and serve my students and serve my fellow citizens in this capacity," said Garza.

Initially, both men had no interest in being mayor. But both say issues in the small town that's home to only about 5,000 people is what drove them to run.

"When people of our community are suffering from outrageous water taxes," Orozco explained. "They can't pay water bills. When the streets have holes in them like no other city in the area. When the administration is giving themselves raises by overtaxing the citizens. There's so much injustice in this town, I couldn't turn a blind eye to it anymore."

According to Yakima County Election records, voter turnout more than tripled this year from 2015...and both Orozco and Garza believe the city needs to turn in a positive direction.

"One where people can live in a city that's safe. That's healthy. Where businesses can thrive and where people from out of town are not running our community."

"There's nothing wrong with believing that we can do better and we can bring some businesses in and create a better economy for Wapato."

But there is concern - that if Garza ultimately wins the election, he won't be at City Hall because he's busy teaching.

"We all know that the Wapato mayor job is a part-time job," Garza said. "There are many other mayors in other cities around our valley that have a full-time job and they do their mayor job as part-time. I will work to the end of the day to get things done and make sure things get done."

There were 30 ballots from Wapato that have not been counted yet because the signatures on them did not match. The decision to count or reject those ballots was left up to three county officials.

According to the Yakima County Auditor, Charles Ross, more than 100 ballots throughout the county were challenged because of signature issues. Ross says it is an anomaly that so many ballots from Wapato were being questioned, but those votes are not automatically void.

Yesterday, a canvassing board meeting was held to determine whether those 30 votes would be counted. The board included Ross, one of the Yakima County Commissioners, and County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic. Ross says the board looked at 102 ballots: 100 were rejected, including the 30 from Wapato.

"We have people that are so afraid their votes don't count that they have actually taken video of themselves signing their signature verification form," Orozco said.

Before the canvassing board, voters with challenged ballots did have chances to prove it was their signature. Ross says the auditor's office calls and sends them a letter right away so they can fix it.

"I'm confident in the Yakima County Auditor's Office that they're going to be professional, they're going to be fair, and we'll just see what the results say," Garza said.

There will be one more canvassing board meeting to look at the remaining challenged signatures next Monday.

The elections results will be certified next Tuesday.

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