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Orange Cries Foul as Jail 'Watershed' Evaporates

January 22, 1992|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — County officials, playing legal hardball in their bid to find new jail beds, have enraged city of Orange officials by maintaining that a key agreement on the future of the Theo Lacy Branch Jail was never binding.

The agreement, hailed as a "watershed" after its signing by county and Orange officials in June, 1990, was designed to cap the number of inmates at the minimum-security jail in Orange.

Because of that agreement, Orange officials quickly dropped a lawsuit against the county that sought to block a 518-bed expansion at Theo Lacy on environmental grounds. That project is expected to be completed by the end of the year and cost $60 million.

But last week county officials proposed that the county expand the capacity at Theo Lacy still further as a short-term solution to jail crowding.

And officials maintain that the 1990 pact, which would appear to bar such a move, is worthless because it was never signed, as required, by Tishman West Management, the company that owns The City Shopping Center across from the jail.

Officials said Tuesday that they aren't sure why Tishman West didn't sign the agreement, and the company isn't talking about it.

Critics of the new expansion plan described the absent signature as a legal technicality. But County Counsel Terry Andrus, whose office reviewed the agreement, said: "We get paid to find legal technicalities."

As expected, the Orange City Council on Tuesday night voted to sue the county, attorney Susan M. Trager said. In addition to the expansion fight, city officials have not received the assurances they wanted that the jail would not eventually house more serious offenders.

Many Orange city officials, residents and business people have opposed any expansion of Theo Lacy because they say it would limit commercial growth and bring more crime into the area.

The county's about-face on the Theo Lacy agreement has led elected leaders in Orange--and even some supporters of the current Theo Lacy expansion--to sharply question the county's integrity.

"There is a feeling of betrayal," said Orange Councilman William G. Steiner, who is also executive director of the Orangewood Children's Foundation, which oversees a juvenile facility just 100 feet from the jail.

"We thought we had a commitment the county would honor," he said. "And now we find out this."

The validity of the agreement has taken on critical importance because of a set of proposals released Friday on the future of Theo Lacy, which currently has 808 beds.

County staff members are recommending that the county meet its short-term jail crunch by nearly doubling the number of beds at Theo Lacy. In the wake of the collapse three months ago of a plan to build a jail in Gypsum Canyon, the new proposal could add more than 800 beds in Orange.

If enacted, at a cost of millions each year, the plan would bring total capacity at Theo Lacy to more than 2,200 beds--far more than the 1,326 cap that local officials thought they had set back in 1990.

Ronald S. Rubino, county budget director, said that even before the issue of the agreement's validity came up, county officials had decided on further expansion at Theo Lacy as the cheapest and best solution to jail crowding.

County lawyers have been reviewing issues surrounding Theo Lacy as part of the jail search. Until a few weeks ago, when he received a memorandum from the county counsel's office on its findings, Rubino said he believed that the county was bound by its 1990 agreement with Orange.

"Then we found out the cap may not even exist," Rubino said.

At the time of the agreement, Orange and county officials hailed it as an important step forward in relations.

But a few months later, a memorandum quietly filed with the board clerk's office stated: "The settlement agreement was never finalized because the owner and operator of The City Shopping Center declined to execute it."

County officials maintain that the agreement requires the signatures of all three parties--the county, the city of Orange and Tishman West. Because Tishman West never signed, the agreement was never filed, county officials say.

Asked about the agreement Tuesday, one county official who requested anonymity said: "Where is it? Produce it. . . . There ain't one."

County officials say they don't know why Tishman West officials didn't sign. The company's first vice president, William Durslag, said he could not comment specifically on the contract issue.

But, he added: "We thought this (dispute) was settled. We thought this was all behind us two years ago."

He said that Tishman West officials foresaw no prospect of further expansion at Theo Lacy "until we got hit with this last proposal. . . . It caught us a little cold."

Rubino said of the controversy: "We've got to sit down with the city of Orange now and try to work this out."

But if reactions Tuesday are any indication, that might be difficult.

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