Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and The Seattle Times. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
It’s mid-August and, to this point, we can breath. Smoke from wildfires has not ensconced our Valley.
We have been fortunate compared to the past few years. The invading smoke has been horrific. But the fire season is far from over.
The spring fire season was active in Washington state, before a stretch of cooler summer weather slowed the burns. As of Monday, 88,246 acres have burned in the state, tracking below last year, when — by October — wildfires had burned through more than 438,830 acres, according to The Seattle Times.
Summer weather is going to be summer weather — as in hot — so let’s hope the efforts by the state Department of Natural Resources to curb wildfires are starting to work.
The state has been working to increase thinning of forests, doing more controlled burns and clearing brush to reduce future fires.
The Legislature approved about $50 million in new funding for wildfire response and forest-health work in the 2019-2021 budget.
That extra funding was imperative as efforts at preventing forest fires have been woefully inadequate.
“We have in Washington state a forest-health crisis,” said Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who oversees the DNR. “We have in Central and Eastern Washington alone, 2.7 million acres of forests that are dying.”
Since 2015, according to reporting by The Seattle Times, the Legislature had allocated only $18 million for fire-reduction effort.
It’s far too early to say whether the infusion of cash will significantly reduce wildfires. It’s only six weeks into the 2019-2020 budget. Next fire season will likely be a better barometer. Still, having that funding will make it easier to take fire-prevention steps now and keep small fires from growing.
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Of course, wildfires do not follow state boundaries. The fires from Canada and Montana that spewed smoke that engulfed our Valley in recent years will not be specifically addressed by Washington’s efforts.
But for now, we can at least be thankful that the heavy smoke that rolled in the past few years has not appeared.
Wapato’s cautionary tale of government run amok
The municipal debacle in Wapato offers important lessons for officials throughout Washington. The exposed corruption serves as a testament to the value of strong open-records laws and the vital need for oversight of how local governments use public resources.
The odyssey in this Yakima County city of 5,000 began last September with a brazen act of self-dealing. In the course of a single meeting, then-Mayor Juan Orozco helped create a new city administrator position with a $95,000 salary for seven years, resigned his mayorship and then accepted the new role from replacement Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa.
All this happened at a meeting with no public agenda, in violation of the Washington Open Public Meetings Act. Two state agencies intervened, and a lawsuit and criminal charges against Orozco ensued.
Voters rightly showed their disgust. In the primary, . They will bear the true costs of this episode. Wapato’s name now stands as a byword for local governance run amok. The costs are still coming in as well. The state auditor in May found murky financial conditions and a $41,000 deficit as of February. The city has been hit by nearly $500,000 in attorney fees and settlements since January 2018, including a $130,000 settlement for Public Records Act violations.
Lawsuits, tort claims and other legal matters will strain city coffers, and the taxpayers on the hook for them, for years. The Open Public Meetings Act was constructed to expose wanton acts of government such as this. Had Wapato’s leaders followed their legal duty and been open with the public about the maneuvers as they were proposed instead of attempting to obscure them, objections — if not outcry — could have stanched the problems before they grew so outsize.
Ex-mayor Orozco agreed to leave local government and drop the ludicrous severance clause in his contract. It is hard to conceive that Wapato voters will ever trust Alvarez-Roa with office again. She should accept the city council’s request and vacate the office immediately, now that the will of her constituency is clear.
The good news is that Wapato’s plight confirms that Washington’s system for accountability worked as designed — eventually. State-agency oversight and the legal system righted the abuses of a local government gone rogue, and voters rejected the poor leadership they received. The high cost paid in the process provides strong evidence that an abuse of the public trust comes with an extraordinary reckoning.