Wapato mayor reselected; City Administrator position added

Former Wapato Mayor Juan Orozco "violated the Code of Ethics for Municipal Officers when he created the position and benefits for a job he was later appointed to fill," state auditor found.

YAKIMA, WA Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today that Wapato City Administrator Juan Orozco has agreed to step down to resolve a lawsuit Ferguson filed in June, accusing Orozco of using his former position as mayor to unlawfully enrich himself. Orozco resigned shortly after noon Friday and forfeited any severance pay.

Based on an investigation by the Washington State Auditor’s Office, Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Orozco, the City of Wapato, the Wapato City Council and current Wapato mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa. Ferguson accused Orozco of violating the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), and the Code of Ethics for Municipal Employees. The lawsuit also accused Alvarez-Roa and the Wapato City Council of violating the OPMA.

“Serving the public is an enormous privilege and responsibility,” Ferguson said. “Mr. Orozco’s abuse of his authority violated the trust the people of Wapato placed in him. As a result of our case and the Auditor’s work, Mr. Orozco is out of office for good.”

“Today’s agreement is a victory for good government and the people of Wapato. Our audits documented an appalling disregard for accountability in the city’s administration,” said Washington State Auditor Pat McCarthy. “I am proud of our local audit team, who investigated and reported on the facts in this case. I also thank the Attorney General’s Office for their work in taking the information we provided and obtaining an agreement that is in the best interest of the community.”

Today’s resolution also requires Orozco to pay a $500 fine for violating the Code of Ethics for Municipal Employees, and prohibits him from seeking or accepting employment from the City of Wapato or any elected office in the city in the future. The lawsuit is still pending against the remaining defendants.

Case background

The Auditor’s Office conducted a regular audit of the City of Wapato and provided the audit report to the Attorney General’s Office in May 2019.

Orozco was elected mayor of Wapato in November 2017. According to the auditor’s report, in August 2018, Orozco asked the Wapato city attorney to draft an ordinance creating the position of city administrator, along with a lucrative contract for the position. The contract set the salary at $95,000 and a contract term of seven years. If the contract ended early, even if the city administrator was fired, the contract entitled the city administrator to payment for the entire seven year term plus an additional six months of salary.

On Sept. 4, 2018, Orozco called a special meeting of the city council just before its regular meeting, without notice of the meeting’s purpose, in violation of the OPMA. The mayor and city council may hold a special meeting, but only after providing notice to the public, including via print and media publication, of the time, location, and “business to be transacted” at the meeting.

Notably, the auditor’s report states, “The City Administrator contract, provided to the Council within their packet before the special meeting on Sept. 4, already had the Mayor’s name filled in.” The report also notes that the city council was “not aware” of Orozco’s plan to create the city administrator position “until September 4, 2018, the date of the special meeting.”

The city council adopted the ordinance, in violation of the OPMA, which prohibits taking final action on any business not specifically identified in the notice setting the special meeting. The council’s approval also violated a separate statute, prohibiting them from taking final action or adopting an ordinance at a special meeting.

Immediately after the council adopted the ordinance, the auditor’s report states, Orozco resigned as mayor.

When the council convened for its regular meeting, it appointed Councilmember Alvarez-Roa mayor. She then appointed Orozco as city administrator, without discussion.

The Code of Ethics for Municipal Employees clearly states that “[n]o municipal officer may use his or her position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself, herself, or others.” Orozco violated this law by using his position as mayor to create a lucrative position for himself as a city employee.

More information on the OPMA, including trainings for elected officials and an Open Government Resource Manual, is available on the Attorney General’s website here.

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