MABTON - Mabton residents and some city council members gathered at the Silver Dollar Cafe this past Saturday to participate in a meeting facilitated by League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) National Vice-President of the Northwest Region Maria Rodriguez-Salazar.
Rodriguez-Salazar said that she received phone calls from various Mabton citizens at her Vancouver office expressing concern and asking questions regarding Mabton Mayor Velva Herrera.
Herrera recently came under fire at a city council meeting for an outstanding balance on her water bill, her usage of a city issued cell phone and a $100 donation she made to the Washington State Historical Society using a city issued credit card.
Though the apparently impromptu meeting was by invitation only and considered private, word of mouth spread quickly in the small town. Some of Herrera's family were kicked out for not keeping order at the meeting and Herrera and Councilwoman Vera Zavala were kicked out at the tail end of the meeting as well.
Rodriguez-Salazar said that LULAC focuses at times on civil rights issues and sometimes on injustices. The overall goal of organization, she said, is to "help progression of the Hispanic community."
She said that she was in Mabton to address particular concerns, but also to learn positive aspects about the community.
Numerous concerns were addressed, from issues regarding the school district to the Mabton Police Department, to the mayor's water and cell phone bills.
Mabton citizen Laura Vasquez expressed concern regarding the Mabton police officer who she said pulled over her husband on 14 separate occasions and issued fines of up to a total of $28,000 as a result of the stops. Vasquez asked what her rights were.
Rodriguez-Salazar asked if she consulted an attorney, but also recommended Vasquez request a one-on-one meeting with the mayor, as she has the right to hire and fire personnel in the city.
Former Mabton resident Robert Garza said that he's saddened to hear of the morale of Mabton locals and he largely blames Herrera for that. "As fast as we got her in here is as fast as we should get her out," he said. He also said he feels Herrera needs to separate city business matters from personal friendships.
Julia Peralez countered that the mayor is being run "through the mill." She also expressed concern regarding comments at the last city council meeting about Kitty Curtiss, the newly hired city clerk treasurer. Peralez said she feared the same fate for Curtiss.
Rodriguez-Salazar countered that elected officials and department heads will be exposed to certain criticisms.
Mabton resident Rachel Ruelas encouraged locals to attend city council meetings.
"Without us voicing our opinions, they just do what they want," she said.
Art Zavala criticized what he felt to be the secretive nature of the Saturday meeting with LULAC. "If you would have put out an announcement, you would have had a hell of a lot more people," he said.
Zavala said that because council members checked Herrera's water bill, the water bills of council members will also be checked.
At that point, Councilman Mario Martinez explained to the crowd that he allowed his water bill to go into arrears quite some time ago to prove the city hadn't followed its own ordinance, which states the homeowner will be notified prior to water shut-off. Because he was never notified, he said, the city attorney told city staff to turn the water back on. "I was just trying to make a point," Martinez said.
Herrera's daughter began to speak about the fact that the mayor is a single parent who is entitled to privacy when it comes to her bill. An argument ensued with some citizens in the audience.
Due to an inability to keep order at the meeting, Rodriguez-Salazar asked that some members of Herrera's family leave, as well as some other citizens.
"This (meeting) isn't and shouldn't be about addressing an individual from a personal standpoint," said Rodriguez-Salazar.
Rodriguez-Salazar also said that the taxpayers have a right to know how their dollars are being spent.
"This is very big, the allegations. There is information that has come forward. I know you don't like how it came out," said Rodriguez-Salazar, who added that city council members are obligated to hold each other accountable.
But Rodriguez-Salazar also said it's up to the citizens to ask questions and understand their rights.
"You can try and put a lot of blame on certain people, but ultimately it's you guys," she said.
Rodriguez-Salazar also explained the recall process to citizens, but cautioned them that there is a certain order to follow when doing so. She also said that there are specific laws, like it has to be proved that an abuse of power took place.
Rodriguez-Salazar said, "We're here to address the accusation of abuse of power. If that's not where you want to go, then you probably shouldn't be a part of this group."
Rodriguez-Salazar asked about Mabton highlights. Citizens said that it's a tight-knit town, with a lot to be proud of, like athletic programs and the fact that everyone knows everyone else.
She began to bring the meeting to a conclusion and asked interested citizens to sign a sheet of paper if they are interested in forming a Mabton LULAC chapter or are interested in attending future meetings.
At this point, Zavala and Herrera entered into the meeting. A shouting match with residents ensued and Rodriguez-Salazar told the two that it was a private meeting. They refused to leave and Rodriguez-Salazar said she would turn them into the State Attorney General's Office.
After the meeting, Rodriguez-Salazar said, "Both (of them) clearly came in there and very clearly tried to use their positions and authority to intimidate (citizens)."
Rodriguez-Salazar said that it was an attempt to infringe on the rights of LULAC as an organization, as well as the rights of the individuals present to organize.
Of Mabton, she said, "It's probably one of the most corrupt communities. I thought Granger had its problems, but Mabton is probably one of the worst."
Rodriguez-Salazar said the incident will now be forwarded to the Department of Justice.