Despite warnings that its decision could backfire, the Orange City Council voted 4 to 1 Wednesday to sue the county over the planned $38-million expansion of the Theo Lacy branch jail on county-owned land within the city's boundaries.
City Manager J. William Little said city officials believe the county's report on the environmental impact of the expansion of the jail from its current capacity of approximately 800 inmates to a maximum of 1,437 inmates is inadequate. The report, he said, "inadequately addressed the concerns raised by the city, the residents and citizens."
Mayor Jess F. Perez said the council acted "with great reluctance" but believed the county should expand the James A. Musick branch jail near El Toro rather than expand the Lacy facility.
"We question why the county would choose to sell this critically needed 100-acre property while at the same time trying to literally cram a major prison on an inadequately sized parcel of land in the City of Orange," Perez said after the closed council meeting.
The county has proposed selling the Musick property to the Irvine Co. in exchange for land in Gypsum and Coal canyons on which to build a much larger jail complex.
The supervisors, in an attempt to avert a lawsuit by Orange, cut back the scope of their expansion plans for the Lacy facility by 300 inmates, trimming the maximum from the county staff-recommended figure of 1,737 inmates to 1,437.
The board also agreed at its Dec. 2 meeting not to house maximum-security inmates at Lacy. The county staff had recommended transferring all the inmates, including those designated maximum-security, from the women's jail in Santa Ana to Lacy. The 300-bed women's jail would then be used to hold maximum-security male inmates.
But Perez said the supervisors' actions were "not binding on the sheriff," Brad Gates, who is independently elected and, in the absence of a legal agreement, could put maximum-security inmates at the facility.
Last week, Perez wrote to the supervisors to ask that they not expand Lacy at all.
But Roger R. Stanton, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, told Perez that he had not raised any issues the supervisors had not already considered and thus there was no need to reconsider the Dec. 2 vote.
Supervisor Don R. Roth, whose district includes the Lacy facility and who pushed for scaling down the expansion, said Wednesday the city's planned lawsuit could backfire, a possibility also raised by Councilman Don Smith, who cast the only no vote Wednesday.
If the supervisors eventually reconsider the expansion plan, they may not stick with the scaled-back version, Roth said.
"I'm not sure I could hold the votes together today that I had (Dec. 2)," Roth said. On that day Stanton voted to put maximum-security inmates at Lacy, but Roth won the support of Supervisors Thomas F. Riley, Harriett M. Wieder and Gaddi H. Vasquez to defeat that proposal.
Smith said that, in view of the county's modification of its original plans, "the question becomes how much more can we achieve by undertaking an expensive lawsuit? I understand we've already spent in the neighborhood of $27,000" to hire a private attorney to fight the jail expansion.
Anaheim is already suing the county over the supervisors' 1986 choice of a site near Anaheim Stadium for a new jail, and Smith said he had been told the city had appropriated $200,000 for that lawsuit.
'Larger Jail' Possibility
In addition, Smith said, the Orange council's vote could lead the county to push harder for the jail near Anaheim Stadium.
"So there is a possibility that we might wind up with a larger jail in Orange and another jail right next to Orange," he said.
The new Anaheim jail, the jail proposed for Gypsum and Coal canyons, and expansions of Lacy and Musick that already have occurred are among the supervisors' responses to a 1985 ruling by U.S. District Judge William P. Gray.
Gray found the supervisors and the sheriff in contempt of court for not heeding his 1978 order to improve conditions in the jails, largely by ending overcrowding.
Last year, Gates told the supervisors he needed space for 300 additional maximum-security inmates as soon as possible because of the overcrowding problem.
The original plan to expand Lacy was designed to include those maximum-security beds.