Eight more weeks for Wapato: prosecutor says he can’t remove mayor before election
WAPATO, Wash. — With Wapato Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa refusing to resign and the Wapato City Council reportedly powerless to remove her, the task of ousting the mayor has fallen to prosecutors — and an old, rarely-used state statute.
But after months of research and effectively exhausting all other legal options to dethrone the current mayor, Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic says it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
“Simply put, making an attempt at removal of the current mayor and the other council members in this short time frame …would do more harm than good for the city of Wapato,” Brusic said Wednesday in a news release.
In August, Brusic announced plans to pursue an age-old state law that allows a prosecutor to remove public officials: quo warranto, which is medieval Latin for “by what warrant.”
But after enlisting the help of the leading state expert on quo warranto, Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys staff attorney Pam Loginsky, prosecutors determined the quo warranto process wouldn’t help Wapato at this point.
“I certainly understand that this decision will have some negative consequences in the court of public opinion and some will disagree,” Brusic said in the release. ” I am fully accountable and transparent as your county prosecutor. I take full responsibility for my decision.”
That decision came from a 10-page report authored by Loginsky, which outlines all the reasons she believes the quo warranto process wouldn’t help Wapato at this point.
Prosecutors’ and people’s arguments for removal
Current and former Wapato city officials have reportedly violated state laws, put the city’s finances in disarray and abused the power of their office. Many were illegally appointed and some remain under criminal investigation, the report said.
Despite hundreds of court documents from numerous lawsuits, tort claims and state auditor’s reports, and statements from public officials corroborating the allegations against city leaders, they’re likely to stay in power for the remaining eight weeks of their term.
“It is truly sad to see a wonderful city like Wapato be brought to the precipice of failure and its demise based upon the actions of a few in power,” Brusic said in the release.
The bulk of allegations have been directed at Alvarez-Roa and former City Administrator Juan Orozco, who resigned in July as part of a lawsuit settlement with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
Out of the eight members currently in power, just two received enough votes in the Aug. 6 primary election to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Council member and mayor pro tempore Keith Workman is up for mayor and council member Chuck Stephens is running to retain his position.
But after the election results are certified Nov. 26, Alvarez-Roa and council members Joel Torres, Ralph Sanchez, Barbie Perez, Ira Cantu and Brinda Quintanilla-Bautista will be out of a job.
While a majority of the city’s leadership will be gone in eight weeks, Brusic was pursuing efforts to get officials out sooner, rather than later.
“The good people of Wapato have suffered based upon their perception and opinion of incompetent governmental leadership,” Brusic said in the release.
Within the past eight weeks, Wapato has declared a financial emergency, instituted spending and hiring freezes and seen more than a half-dozen additional lawsuits filed against the city.
The city’s had its surveillance camera cables cut, replaced the cameras and then had the replacement cameras stop functioning. Allegations surfaced that someone has stolen or destroyed public documents from Wapato City Hall.
Alvarez-Roa fired Wapato police Chief Dominic Rizzi, allegedly for not being as involved in the community as she thought he should be. And on reportedly three separate occasions, Alvarez-Roa fired City Clerk Treasurer Kimberly Grimm.
Grimm’s lawyers argues Alvarez-Roa fired Grimm because she was complying with the criminal investigation into the city by the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office.
Now, the city has no one guarding or overseeing city finances, billing, payroll, credit cards or working on balancing the budget for 2019 or preparing the 2020 budget.
Alvarez-Roa has also demanded she be paid thousands of dollars in backpay for her time as mayor, though city minutes show she agreed last fall to change her salary to $1 a year.
“Concerned city residents, city employees, law enforcement and the media have all asked [Brusic] to intervene in order to get the city back on track,” Loginsky said in the report. “Unfortunately, a prosecuting attorney has limited authority to act under these circumstances.”
Limited options for removal
Limited options exist to remove a public official during their term in office. Simply put, Brusic says most of the conditions necessary to put someone on the path to removal are not within the control or power of the prosecuting attorney.
Recall election: The people can request a recall election, but it’s a lengthy process and is not typically used during a regular election year.
Removal for absences: In a city structured like Wapato, sitting council members can remove council members who miss more than three regular meetings in a row without council permission. However, that’s dependent on absences and a willingness by the council to remove someone.
Resignation: Any public official can tender their resignation, but in the case of current Wapato leaders, it hasn’t happened yet. Despite calls for her removal and numerous votes of no confidence by council members, Alvarez-Roa has explicitly said she will not tender her resignation.
Vacancy: Council members can also appoint a new council member or mayor in the event that a vacancy is created. A vacancy happens when an official is no longer a registered voter of the city, refuses to take or renew their oath of office, or their election or appointment is declared void. Vacancy can also result from a felony conviction, conviction of any offense involving their official duties or, “whenever a judgment shall be obtained against the incumbent for breach of the condition of his or her official bond.,” according to state law.
Quo warranto process too long, likely to be ineffective and costly
Effectively the last legal option is the quo warranto process. A prosecuting attorney can use quo warranto to oust a person whose office is vacant, whose appointment is void or who unlawfully exercising the powers of a public office.
But Loginsky argues that the process would take too long to remove officials before the election. If it somehow did happen before the election, it would likely be ineffective and cause more harm than good.
Loginsky says In the unlikely event legal proceedings were somehow finalized prior to the 2019 election results being certified on Nov. 26, the replacement members would serve just a “handful of days” before the new council took over.
Quo warranto actions would also not apply to the whole leadership, just Perez, Cantu, Stephens, and Alvarez-Roa, whose appointments were invalid because they occurred at meetings that violated the state Open Public Meetings Act, according to the report.
Loginsky says while the initial appointments of Torres and Quintanilla-Bautista were also invalid, quo warranto wouldn’t apply to them because they were reappointed at a properly conducted special meeting.
In the event that Perez, Cantu, Stephens, and Alvarez-Roa were successfully removed using quo warranto in time to appoint new leaders before the newly-elected officials took over, there’s no predicting who would assume those positions in the meantime, the report said.
“Neither the prosecuting attorney who filed the quo warranto action, the judge who entered the judgment of ouster, nor the electorate have any control over who the council members appoint,” Loginsky said in the report.
Remaining council members could reappoint the ousted members at a meeting that complies with the Open Public Meetings Act, the report said.
Additionally, Loginsky argues the ensuing legal battle as the mayor and council members fight against their removal could be costly to Wapato taxpayers.
“Unfortunately, a prosecuting attorney lacks the power to block a decision by the council to expend public resources,” Loginsky said in the report.
While it would be unconstitutional for leadership to bankroll their legal fight with city funds, the report says, there’s not much the prosecutor could do about it.
“Based upon the foregoing and Ms. Loginsky’s conclusions in her attached memorandum, I will refrain from filing Quo Warranto actions in an attempt to remove Wapato councilmembers from office,” Brusic said in the release.
Looking forward for Wapato
Despite barriers facing Brusic in the removal of city officials, he can still potentially file criminal charges against former and current city officials, as the investigations are still ongoing.
“I will continue to seek justice on the behalf of Wapato residents regarding any criminal law violations,” Brusic said in the release. “No one is above the law.”
However, filing criminal charges would not result in immediate removal. While a judge could impose conditions of release, “it is doubtful that the judge may bar an accused from performing the duties of mayor or council member while the charges are pending,” the report said.
Now, voters will take to their ballots in November to choose the next group of people to run their city, something Brusic said is crucial.
“This entire dark and demoralizing political period for the City of Wapato underscores how important each and every person’s vote is in electing public officials,” Brusic said in the release. “This authority and power granted to the people must be utilized competently and with full information and education of each and every candidate for political office.”