There were only two seats left vacant in the Tenino High School auditorium during Sunday’s community town hall: one for a representative of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and one for a representative of the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
The two agencies had agreed to attend the town hall to answer questions about a proposed Less Restrictive Alternative (LRA) housing facility for sex offenders from the McNeil Island Special Commitment Center that has caused outrage and concern among Tenino-area residents.
“When I met with our state government, we confirmed that they were all good to go, that they were going to show up and they were going to be a part of this, and that was what my ask was,” Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders said.
However, two days before the scheduled town hall, the two agencies backed out.
“Regrettably, due to threats by individuals and other information circulating on social media, we will instead host a virtual, public webinar 6-7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1,” said DSHS and DOC in a joint letter to Sanders on Jan. 27.
The specifics of those threats and “other information” have not been released.
The agencies had sent Sanders an email earlier to express concerns about safety and the “structure” of the town hall, Sanders told the Tenino community Sunday.
Sanders said he explained it would operate as a traditional town hall, with the officials at a table on stage and Sanders himself moderating from a podium, and that not only would the venue be a gun-free zone, personnel from the sheriff’s office and the Tenino Police Department would be on hand.
“At no point did they offer state troopers or any of their security,” said Sanders. “If the sheriff’s office had anything they needed to do, if there was a security concern, we would make it happen. The state government has 100-times more resources than we do. They just didn’t feel like making it happen. That’s what makes me mad.”
In their conversation prior to the town hall, Sanders said representatives from DSHS and DOC “apologized” and “said they made a number of mistakes” in regard to the Tenino facility, which was contracted out to Supreme Living LLC. Notably, state officials said that they sent notification about it to the sheriff’s office before Sanders was sworn in, but due to a lack of transition between Sanders and former Sheriff John Snaza, Sanders didn’t receive the notification.
“A number of apologies were made and that was OK, fine,” Sanders shrugged. “I said, ‘You owe it to our community to come out and answer some questions. You just do.’”
The state agencies claim they will answer those questions during the Feb. 1 webinar.
“We will be providing information and responding to community concerns regarding the less restrictive alternative planned for Tenino,” stated the agencies in the Jan. 27 letter to Sanders. Information on how to attend the webinar had not been released as of Monday morning. Per DSHS and the DOC, “a link to the webinar information is forthcoming. We will share this information with the public via social media and on the DSHS and DOC websites.”
While DSHS and DOC representatives were absent from Sunday’s town hall, Sanders and Thurston County Commissioners Gary Edwards and Carolina Mejia spent over two hours fielding questions about the facility from a packed house of concerned citizens not just from the Tenino area, but from other areas in Washington that are impacted by LRAs.
“Enumclaw (King County) it’s happening to, Tenino it’s happening to, spread the word to your neighbors … We have to watch out for our own neighborhoods. If we do it one neighborhood at a time, we can help each other,” said an Eatonville, Pierce County, resident on Sunday who said her community has an LRA opening without community input or notification.
A full livestream of the town hall is available on The Chronicle’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/thecentraliachronicle.
While LRAs are not new in Washington, a bill passed in the 2021 state legislative session amended state law as it relates to conditionally-released sexually violent predators in Revised Code of Washington 71 in two key ways.
First, it established what legislators called “fair share principles,” meaning each county must provide community-based housing placements for conditionally-released sexually violent predators who are from their county.
Under that principle, Thurston County is responsible for housing 11 conditionally-released sexually violent predators, according to Thurston County Commission Chair Carolina Meja.
Second, the bill granted each civilly-committed sexually violent predator the right to develop a discharge plan and encouraged the filing and approval of resident petitions LRAs. The legislation also reduced the requirements for opening an LRA in a way that overrides city and county land use ordinances, according to Thurston County commissioners.
Since the start of 2022, a total of 22 McNeil Island residents have been released to LRAs, according to DSHS.
Of those, eight have gone to King County, 11 have gone to Pierce County, one has gone to Snohomish County and four have gone to Spokane County, according to DSHS.
While the Tenino facility is slated to hold up to five sex offenders who have been granted an LRA, only one resident had been confirmed as of Monday morning.
The Tenino facility was initially scheduled to open Feb. 1, but due to non-compliance with county health septic and water systems, that opening has been delayed. A new opening date had not been announced as of Monday morning.
DSHS did not release information to The Chronicle about planned future releases or LRAs that are in the process of opening.
LRAs are a topic on the agenda for an upcoming Lewis County Mayors Meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 3 at the Lewis County Historical Courthouse.
The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and Tenino Residents Against Supreme Living intend to post the link to the Feb. 1 webinar on their respective Facebook pages, https://www.facebook.com/Thurstoncountysheriff and https://www.facebook.com/groups/1207180946554980, when it becomes available.