Clarkston officials question jail process

The site selected for the new Asotin County Jail is seen Thursday afternoon on the corner of 14th Street and Fair Street in Clarkston, just south of the Snake River.

ASOTIN — City of Clarkston officials voiced concerns Thursday about the process Asotin County used to select a site for the new jail.

At a jail finance committee meeting, Mayor Monika Lawrence and Clerk Steve Austin said the commissioners’ recent decision to purchase 6.4 acres near 14th and Fair streets and Port Drive should have been more transparent.

“The city of Clarkston doesn’t dispute the viability of the property or whether the county should purchase it,” Austin said. “What we want is transparency and for the public to have input. Residents and businesses in that area are saying they didn’t have a voice in this process. The city has an obligation to its taxpayers to make sure the public safety tax money is being used appropriately.”

Commissioner Chris Seubert said the county had no intention of leaving anyone out of the loop. The agreement was negotiated with the landowner, BL Construction, and the land will be purchased with the county’s capital improvement funds and later reimbursed with public safety tax revenue. The plan is in accordance with the interlocal agreement and public safety tax passed by voters last year for the construction and operation of a new jail, he said.

“This negotiated agreement was made in a short time period because the landowner wanted it kept quiet until we voted on the sales agreement,” Seubert said. “The price was negotiated between the owner and me on the Friday before the meeting when we took the vote. The commissioners discussed it in executive session, and then we made the decision in open session. The driving factor was it will be less costly to build it there, and there’s a quicker time frame for completion of construction.”

Officials involved in previous jail discussions said they were blindsided by the county’s move. Asotin Police Chief Monte Renzelman said he didn’t know anything about the land purchase agreement until he read about it in the Lewiston Tribune the next day, and he wasn’t the only one who felt left out. Most of the people who went to bat for the new jail last year weren’t aware of the change in direction.

“Process matters,” Lawrence agreed. “If the citizens are left out, that’s a problem.”

Lawrence, the Clarkston mayor, said she is hearing from many people who were caught off guard, and all of the goodwill created during previous town hall sessions on the jail is now in jeopardy. She got a “courtesy call” shortly before the commissioners met and approved the site Oct. 19, but no one from the city was involved in the decision.

“We beat this to death in executive session,” Seubert said. “We came out and voted for it because it’s the best thing economically.”

The county’s preferred site along Sixth Avenue and Evans Road had been touted as the best option until an architect told officials it would cost at least $1.6 million for excavation work on the county-owned property in the Clarkston Heights.

Austin questioned the estimate, saying a third-party review indicated it could be much less. In past discussions, the county indicated there would be substantial savings at the Heights site because the Public Works Department intends to develop nearby land along Sixth Street, he said.

Seubert said the latest numbers were not inflated, and he resented the implication.

Austin said the county “came out strongly” when the Nez Perce Tribe bought the Clarkston Golf and Country Club because the property was removed from the tax rolls. If the commercial land near Walla Walla Community College is purchased for the jail, the city also stands to lose tax revenue, he said.

The city clerk said Clarkston officials want the process to be properly vetted by residents and property owners who live near the site. When the Heights location was in play, multiple town hall meetings were conducted for the public to comment, he said.

“Everybody was under the assumption the preferred site was near the landfill,” Austin said, “and one of the selling points of the public safety tax was the jail would not have to shoulder all of the site prep costs because public works was developing nearby property. I don’t think the citizens ever thought the jail was going in the port. We’ve been getting overwhelming input from people wondering why they weren’t told about this.”

Seubert said the 14th Street land has always been a consideration, and county officials have repeatedly said they would choose the most financially feasible spot. The land deal came together quickly, and it makes the most sense, he said. Instead of criticism, Seubert said he expected constituents to be calling with praise for the deal.

The property in the Port of Clarkston can be purchased for $1.4 million after the first of the year, Seubert said. If the sale doesn’t go through by March 31, the county would have to swallow $14,000 in earnest money.

Seubert also bristled at the suggestion the timing of the decision was politically motivated. All three commissioners are on the Nov. 3 ballot, he said, and they opted to let people know where they stood on the jail location before the election.

“Frankly, I’m flabbergasted by this,” Seubert said. “We want to be transparent. I don’t know how we could’ve been more open.”

In addition to Seubert, the jail finance committee is made up of Sheriff John Hilderbrand, who is the chairman of the group; attorney Trae Turner; Renzelman; and the Clarkston mayor. This was the group’s first meeting since the 14th Street property was announced as the future site of the jail. Austin sat at the table as the mayor’s alternate, and Lawrence was in the audience, along with Chris Kemp, the chief operating officer for Asotin County.

After more than an hour of discussion, the five-member panel agreed to conduct another town hall meeting via Zoom prior to the purchase of the land. In addition, the architect will provide a detailed analysis of the site, which will be posted on the county’s website before the online meeting, Seubert said.

Sandaine may be contacted at kerris@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2264. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri.

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