Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Incorporated in 1907, the City of Toppenish is located in Central Washington and is situated about 20 miles southeast of the City of Yakima. The City covers approximately two square miles and has a population of 9,000 residents.

This little city is now caught up in a controversary surrounding what at best were some stupid and at worst racist remarks made by its mayor.

It seems that a week or so ago local TV station KIMA ran a story about the high crime rate in Toppenish, which is the largest city on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

The mayor didn't like the report and attacked first the messenger (KIMA), then he went on to blame Indians for the problem:

"The Indians don't pay taxes, which affects our revenue to fight the crime". That's why Toppenish is one of the worst gang-infested hellholes in the Northwest? That's why hearing news of the latest shooting, stabbing, drive-by or meth lab bust in Toppenish ranks right up there next to the weather forecast?

Yikes, Mr. Mayor.

The only taxes not paid by local Inidans is the sales tax and that is becasue the town is located on tribal land. In addition, tribal members point out all the money they contribute to the local economy through businesses like Legends Casino.

"It has been reported to me that two percent of the annual revenue is donated to the city of Toppenish," said tribal member Linda Pratt. "So the city of Toppenish is benefiting financially from the Yakama Nation they are not losing out."

The following little ditty comes from the YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC

Toppenish mayor on the hot seat

TOPPENISH -- City Council members tabled a discussion Monday night about whether to remove Mayor Bill Rogers for blaming the city's budget shortfall on a sales tax exemption for Yakama tribal members.

Three council members voiced concern about how Rogers has treated residents at council meetings, and at least one councilman said he should step down. Rogers has nine months left on his two-year term as mayor, a largely ceremonial job chosen by fellow council members.

Council members began discussing Rogers' actions after hearing from several residents, many of them Yakama tribal members, about the comments he made last week to KIMA-TV, a CBS affiliate in Yakima.

They planned to discuss it in a closed session, but Rogers -- who hired former Lower Valley District Court Judge George Colby to represent him in the matter -- requested it be public.

Rogers even told Councilman Loren Belton, who also disapproved of the comments, that he didn't think the council could remove him if it wanted.

Monday night's meeting drew more than 70 residents, with many lining the wall in the back of City Hall and filling the foyer.

Some residents, admitting they didn't like Rogers' comments, nonetheless favored keeping him in his post. But most of those who said they wanted him out were tribal members who called his comments racist.

Rogers publicly apologized last Thursday for telling KIMA, "The Indians don't pay taxes, which affects our revenue to right the crime," and repeatedly apologized to tribal members during Monday night's City Council meeting.

But his comments continue to be at the center of controversy in town, as they seemed to have unearthed old racial wound suffered by many tribal members.

Some tribal members during the meeting recalled racist statements they grew up hearing about Indians in town, and when Indians weren't allowed in many businesses.

"It seems that attitude toward the Yakama Indians hasn't changed," said tribal member Misty Smartlowit. "It's going to keep going on and it should stop with you."

At the request from Councilwoman Elaine Willman, the council decided to hold off on any discussions about the mayor until Councilwoman Clara Jimenez -- who was absent -- could be present.

Reading from a statement she prepared, Willman defended Rogers and said KIMA took his comments out of context.

Tribal member Merna Jackson questioned the credibility of Willman, who leads the local Citizen's Standup Committee, which in the past has taken aggressive stances against the tribe over an alcohol ban and utility tax.

"And you think know you can write something and condone the mayor's conduct?" she said. "I'm really upset about this."

Councilman Fred Diaz said Rogers has made other comments in the past that offend people and that he should step down.

At least one business owner is also calling for the mayor's ouster, and a grassroots effort by some tribal members is threatening to boycotting local businesses until Rogers steps down.

Yakama Tribal Council Vice Chairman Sam Jim said earlier Monhat tribal leaders would like Rogers to apologize in person but aren't endorsing any boycott efforts.

"We're concerned about what he said," Jim said. "He shouldn't have said it."

It wouldn't be the first boycott by tribal members. In the mid-1990s, strained relations between the city and the tribe saw some tribal members avoiding local businesses.

At Dad's Restaurant, 433 S. Elm Street, the reader board outside says "Wanted, New Mayor for Toppenish." Inside, a stack of open letters calling for the mayor's ouster sits on the counter near the cash register.

Owner Dan Eshleman, who wrote the letter, says Rogers stepped over the line.

Rogers said he was angrily responding to the way KIMA had reported on crime in town when he made the comments to its reporter.

KIMA described the town as "rampant with crime" and that "nearly every resident in the tiny community lives in fear."

Rogers said he still plans to apologize in person to tribal leaders, and has already done so during a telephone conversation with Tribal Council Chairwoman Lavina Washines.

In a statement released Friday, Washines said the tribe didn't want to make any more of an issue of Ropers' comments, but didn't want it to happen again.

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