People with questions about a planned sex offender housing facility near Tenino may attend an informational town hall at Tenino High School on Sunday.
The Thurston County Sheriff's Office announced the town hall in a Facebook post on Tuesday. Members of the Washington State Department of Corrections and Department of Social and Health Services plan to share information and field questions starting at 4 p.m.
Supreme Living LLC, a residential care services company, plans to open a supportive housing facility on a 15-acre property at 2813 140th Ave. SW near Tenino on Feb. 1. This facility will house up to five clients of DSHS, including sex offenders released from McNeil Island Special Commitment Center.
The town hall comes about two weeks after Supreme Living LLC hosted a community forum that drew criticism from locals and Sheriff Derek Sanders. Last Tuesday, Sanders described that meeting as a "good example of how not to do things" because he felt unsatisfied with the answers provided.
Sanders made those comments during a Board of County Commissioners meeting that drew dozens of people who protested the planned facility, The Olympian reported. At the time, he expressed concerns about how law enforcement could quickly respond if someone escaped from the proposed facility.
Plans for the town hall came together on Monday after members of the Sheriff's Office executive staff met with DOC and DSHS representatives to discuss the facility, according to the Facebook post.
"We apologize for the short notice as we are working hard to get answers for our community," the post says. "TCSO thanks our community for staying engaged and cordial during a time when not many answers were available, and we look forward to hearing from you."
Who will be present at the town hall?
Members of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, Special Commitment Center and Department of Corrections will be present at Sunday's gathering.
DSHS operates mental health treatment programs at the Special Commitment Center. These programs help treat civilly committed sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences, according to DSHS.
Officials from Supreme Living LLC will not attend the meeting, Sanders said.
What kind of facility is planned?
The proposed facility is a Less Restrictive Alternative community home that will be operated and staffed by Supreme Living LLC, a private provider.
Sex offenders who have completed their sentences are placed in a Less Restrictive Alternative facility by court order, according to DSHS.
For a person to be placed in such a facility, a Superior Court must be convinced that this living arrangement would be in the person's best interest and the community can be adequately protected.
A community housing facility is one of two types of Less Restrictive Alternatives. Another type is called a Secure Community Transition Facility (SCTF).
DSHS and the Special Commitment Center say they operate one SCTF on McNeil Island in Pierce County and another in South Seattle in King County. These facilities offer 24-hour-a-day intensive staffing and trained escorts who closely monitor residents who leave the facility.
In both cases, residents must follow court ordered conditions. These include sex offender behavioral health treatment and GPS monitoring.
Additionally, residents are monitored by DSHS social workers and Department of Corrections staff.
What is Thurston County doing?
Thurston County sent a letter to Supreme Living on Tuesday, informing them that they must abide by certain code and permitting requirements prior to starting operations.
"In essence, we have put this facility on notice that they need to meet the minimum requirements of water supply, septic and sewage systems as well as services before they can open this facility," County Manager Ramiro Chavez said.
Chavez shared the update about the county's response during a Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday. He described the letter as a short-term strategy that could delay Supreme Living's plans.
"If they decide to open, that would be a county violation and we will start enforcement elements related to this code violation," Chavez said.
However, Supreme Living would have the opportunity to appeal the action.
Chavez said the board also will review the contract Supreme Living has with DSHS to make sure it's being followed correctly. In the long term, he said the county plans to help local state legislators introduce a new law to regulate how sites are chosen for these facilities.
State law allowed Supreme Living to skirt the county's land use policies when it selected the property near Tenino, Commissioner Tye Menser said. However, the county still has the power to enforce its public health and safety standards.
"We need to enforce those regardless of how we felt about the merits of this operation," Menser said. "It's appropriate. We will hold them to the standard that any other property owner or project applicant would have to go through."
Commissioner Gary Edwards said he learned the hard way how that process can be time consuming.
"I had a project one time that took five years to get septic approved," Edwards said. "I'm not making that up. It's a true story."
Commissioner Carolina Mejia thanked the community for its engagement on this issue. She described the county's letter as a first step in a long process.
"We will continue working with our legislators to really try to address the underlying questions of this facility and how this came to be," Mejia said.
What are state legislators doing?
State Sen. Drew MacEwen and State Reps. Dan Griffey and Travis Couture, who all represent the 35th Legislative District, have announced they are already working on a new law to close a public-notice loophole that allowed Supreme Living to blindside local residents.
The proposed law would require public notice and a public comment period when a privately operated group home for sex offenders is proposed, according to a news release.
The legislators, all Republicans, plan to introduce versions of this law in the Senate and House.
"We want people to know we are working on legislative solutions," MacEwan said. "No one can blame the community for being upset. This has been in the works for months, yet the neighbors found out about it just three weeks before the first sex predator is due to arrive."
Griffey said he believes Supreme Living and DSHS found a way to work around local communities that could be at risk.
"Ensuring the people of Washington state have safe communities to live in is one of our most important jobs and housing sexually violent predators considered among the most likely to reoffend in those communities — without proper notice or public process — is a clear violation of the Legislature's intent," Griffey said.
Couture called the proposed facility dangerous and irresponsible. He said neighbors have "every right to be outraged."
"At the very least, state agencies should have been transparent and given public notice of this plan, so that citizens could voice their concerns to the officials who are supposed to be serving them," Couture said. "Any legislative effort that prevents this from happening again has my full support."
How to attend the town hall
The town hall will be held in person at Tenino High School at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29. The school is located at 500 Second Ave. W. in Tenino.