Saturday, June 2, 2007

County moves to sue Renton over jail contract

Yakima County commissioners authorized county attorneys Friday to sue the city of Renton over the Seattle suburb's decision to terminate a jail bed-rental contract with the county.

County officials contend Renton's decision to pull out its 27 inmates last August violated the contract.

The county will ask a judge to interpret the seven-year deal and outline the rights of both parties in an action called a declaratory judgment.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Larry Peterson said he will file suit in Thurston County Superior Court, which is home to the state capital of Olympia.

The contract specifies that legal disputes will be settled there.

County officials believe Renton had no basis to terminate the seven-year contract, which they argue requires Renton to pay for rental beds through 2010.

Renton is one of 35 King County cities that signed agreements to rent jail beds here. Several other cities in the group recently settled claims similar to those espoused by Renton, mostly dealing with delays in opening the new county jail near State Fair Park.

The 288-bed jail opened four years later than originally planned.

But instead of settling, Renton filed a claim earlier this week that seeks $414,000 in damages for costs the city has incurred and will take on in the future to house its inmates elsewhere.

"We have been patient and quiet throughout this arduous process. That time has come to an end," said commission Chairman Mike Leita.

"It is unfortunate Renton has chosen this unilateral path of confrontation," he added. "It requires Yakima County to respond in kind."

In authorizing legal action, the commissioners also denied Renton's damage claim.

Renton is now free to file a lawsuit of its own against Yakima County in an attempt to recover damages outlined in its claim.

A Renton representative said later Friday it is Yakima County that violated the agreement by failing to open the new county jail sooner. The failure meant the city's inmates had to be held in unsafe conditions without adequate medical care at the downtown jail.

Those violations, the city contends, allowed Renton to terminate the contract.

Zanetta Fontes , a Renton attorney whose firm contracts to provide legal services to the city, said later Friday she is limited in what she can say because of the pending lawsuit.

"We believed that Yakima County was in breach of the contract when that (termination) letter was written for the reasons set out in the letter," she said.

County officials responded they had already gone a long way to overcome those problems, steps Renton was informed of but still decided to withdraw.

Despite its withdrawal, Renton has continued to pay for the beds to which the city committed.

Fontes said Renton paid the bill for the fourth quarter of last year under protest. The city has just received a $132,000 bill for the first quarter of this year.

The contract, entered into in 2002, allows the participants to terminate by mutual agreement or for cause. In either event, the cities must give a one-year notice and pay for the beds during that year.

The outcome of potentially dueling legal action could have wider consequences for the county beyond just Renton.

Commissioner Rand Elliott said the settlement with the other cities requires that any preferential treatment the county provides one city in terms of rental rates or other advantages must be offered to all 35.

Allowing Renton to pull out without what county commissioners see as just cause has what Leita described as possibly catastrophic consequences for the county's ability to operate the new jail.

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