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Councilmen accuse mayor of violating city policies, state law

MABTON - Mabton Mayor Velva Herrera came under fire at this past Tuesday night's regularly scheduled city council meeting.

Not from local citizens, per se, rather by fellow council members.

Herrera was admonished on several fronts. Chief among the complaints was Herrera failing to pay her city water, sewer and garbage utility bill, which at one point said Councilman Angel Reyna was more than $600 in arrears.

Reyna also charged Herrera with misusing a city-issued cell phone, saying the Mabton mayor isn't paying for the personal calls she makes on the phone.

Herrera, too, was accused this past Tuesday evening of illegally gifting public funds to the Washington State Historical Society. The mayor admitted she donated $100 to the historical society, by way of charging the donation to a city-issued credit card. City Attorney Jack Maxwell, responding to inquiries from the council, said such action was indeed a "gifting of public funds."

Councilman Mario Martinez also charged Herrera with directing a sewer plant employee to work an extra three-hour shift, and promising to pay the employee for eight hours of labor. Herrera disputed that claim, saying, "That's not coming from me, that's coming from someone else."

Martinez countered, "It really seems like you're using your position to secure privileges for yourself and other people."

Martinez went on to say he believes Herrera has violated several RCWs, most notably when she recently hired Kitty Curtiss as the new city clerk/treasurer, a person Martinez believes is not qualified for the job.

Not stopping there, Martinez charged Herrera with approving police department expenditures that were not previously budgeted for. He said his interpretation of the RCW in question is that a municipal department can't spend more money than originally budgeted without approval of the city council. That, said Martinez, did not happen.

Martinez, too, expressed his displeasure in the council not receiving quarterly financial reports. He said an RCW currently on the books requires such updates, and that council has not been issued such a report this year, nor in 2007.

Councilwoman Oping Hutson then jumped into the fray. Holding up a book from the Association of Washington Cities, titled "Small City Resource Manual," Oping said she read it and learned "...there are a lot of RCWs we haven't been doing."

The verbal shots directed at Herrera Tuesday night began with Reyna bringing up the unpaid utility bills. At that point in the meeting, Councilwoman Vera Zavala asked to be excused, saying she wanted no part of the discussion.

Reyna explained that he'd requested information from city hall under the public information act, and learned of the unpaid bills. He said as of the end of February of this year, Herrera's utility bill was in arrears to the tune of $618.63.

"How do we explain (this) to citizens (whose water was) shut off?" Reyna asked.

Herrera responded by saying she signed a promissory note. After the meeting, she said she signed the note on Dec. 4, 2007, and that presently she only owes $200.

Following the council meeting, Herrera alleged the city does not shut off water because of unpaid bills from November through March, because she said water meters are not read during that time frame.

Public Works Director Tootie de la Fuente corrected her, however, saying the city does shut off water to local residents' homes during the winter months, unless a promissory note has been signed.

Despite Herrera abruptly adjourning Tuesday night's meeting, the council remained seated to give Mabton resident Jim Adams an opportunity to speak. He expressed his displeasure about the unpaid utility bills, saying he feels those citizens who do pay their bills are subsidizing those who don't.

"It's my understanding that up to 100 people are overdue," Adams said. "Why should any of us pay our water bill?

"Every time I read a story in the paper after a meeting, you're digging for money. This water situation has to be addressed. People can't get (something) for nothing. It can't go on," he said.

Herrera responded by saying the city had adopted the promissory note policy a few years ago. Reyna asked in what manner had that policy been adopted, and the city attorney, Maxwell, said it would have had to been via a council-approved ordinance. Hutson offered up that she thought the policy originated by word of mouth from former City Administrator Ildia Jackson. Maxwell said city officials need to find out how the policy came into existence.

In responding to the charge that she uses the city-issued cell phone for personal calls, and doesn't reimburse the city for those expenses, Herrera said she had been paying a portion of the monthly bill. She said she stopped doing so when learning that Councilman Reyna hadn't been paying any portion of the bill for his city-issued cell phone. Reyna countered that he hadn't used the phone for personal calls.

Following the meeting, Herrera explained she used the city-issued cell phone to communicate with her granddaughters, whom she provides transportation for, and with a parent, who is ill. Herrera went on to say there is no policy or procedures in Mabton dealing with city-issued cell phones.

During council discussion on this issue, Herrera said she will be turning the phone back over to the city.

In the matter of Herrera hiring Curtiss as the new city clerk, Councilman Martinez said his understanding of the state statutes (RCWs) is that if a person does not meet the qualifications for a city position, the hiring should come before city council. Martinez, calling Curtiss unqualified to be city clerk/treasurer, cited his displeasure in the amount of pay Herrera approved for her.

Herrera responded, saying she started Curtiss out at a lower rate of pay than the $39,000 that had been included in the 2008 budget for the position. She also maintained that Curtiss is qualified to be the town's city clerk, noting that Curtiss had worked at US Bank for 12 years.

Martinez went on to question the money being spent on police officers' salaries, intimating that Herrera has approved a larger budget for the police department than what was originally budgeted by the council.

Police Chief Robert Perales contends that misinformation is at the root of the problem. "As of today, there's still a hell of a lot of errors in that system, and you're using information from the past.

"We are finding errors and trying to correct them by utilizing resources outside of the city," Perales said.

After the meeting had been adjourned, Perales voiced his disapproval of Councilman Reyna publicly accusing the mayor of wrong-doing.

"It's highly immoral what Angel (Reyna) did, conducting his little investigation without consulting the mayor. This reminds me of a third world country, where (people are) attempting a coup," the police chief said.

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