Lawsuit seeks to invalidate administrator’s contract, pay back salary
YAKIMA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit today against the city administrator of Wapato, accusing him of using his former position as mayor to unlawfully enrich himself. The lawsuit also names the Wapato City Council and the current mayor of Wapato for their roles in approving the scheme.
The lawsuit seeks to invalidate City Administrator Juan Orozco’s contract as city administrator. The lawsuit also asks the court to order Orozco to forfeit his position as city administrator and to repay the city the salary he was unlawfully paid, and pay civil penalties.
“Using a public office to enrich yourself is an abuse of the public trust, and a violation of the law,” Ferguson said. “Violating our transparency laws undermines Washingtonians’ ability to remain informed about the decisions their government officials are making.”
“Our audit work revealed serious violations of basic accountability standards by the City of Wapato, violations that warrant a response from city residents and public officials alike,” said Washington State Auditor Pat McCarthy. “I appreciate Attorney General Ferguson’s decisive action in this matter, which reflects the high value the public places on government transparency.”
Based on an investigation by the Washington State Auditor’s Office, the lawsuit, filed today in Yakima County Superior Court, accuses Orozco of violating the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), and the Code of Ethics for Municipal Employees. It also accuses Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa and the Wapato City Council of violating the OPMA.
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 six months’ severance pay.
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.
In addition to requiring Orozco to step down from office, the lawsuit asks the court to impose the maximum penalty of $500 on Orozco for violating the Code of Ethics for Municipal Employees. The lawsuit also asks the court to order all Wapato City Council members to undergo training in the OPMA.
If the court finds their actions violated either the OPMA or the Code of Ethics for Municipal Employees, Orozco’s contract as city administrator would be void.
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.
Assistant Attorneys General Andrew Hughes and Suzanne Becker are handling the case.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.firstname.lastname@example.org