Stockton Record
November 25, 2009

It was a puzzling, but not altogether unexpected, reaction local officials received Friday from federal prison health care receiver J. Clark Kelso.

Stockton, San Joaquin County and the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce earlier in the week had sued Kelso and state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations officials to make sure the state and Kelso made good on their vows to see that adverse affects from a huge prison project the state plans are mitigated.

Local officials said Thursday they would put their suit into hibernation for 30 days at a time while they worked with prisons officials on mitigation measures. There is fear from some here that the 1,734-bed prison hospital, a mental health facility and a prison re-entry facility, among other things, will seriously draw down on the limited pool of health care and correctional workers here, strain municipal services and add to air pollution.

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s sit down and try to work this out without going through the litigation process,’ ” said Stockton attorney Steve Herum.

Kelso, who last year sued Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in an attempt to force the state to pay billions for a series of six prison hospitals he wanted to build, was hearing none of it from Herum.

“The county’s, city’s and chamber’s belated attempt now to offer a tolling agreement is a day late and a dollar short,” said Kelso spokesman Luis Patino in a prepared statement.

When Kelso met with The Record’s editorial board earlier this month, he said he regretted having sued the governor because it delayed by a year reaching a workable settlement with state corrections officials. His suit, Kelso said, only made the governor dig in his heels. Now it’s Kelso’s turn to dig in his heels

“If we can (work out a deal), that’s terrific,” said Herum of the suit. “If not, we have confidence in our legal position inasmuch as we filed our lawsuit.”

We have confidence, too, that despite assurances from Kelso and the state, local officials better be prepared for a siege. Kelso is under federal court orders to improve health care for prison inmates.

The state-Kelso proposal will go forward. It’s up to local officials to use the suit to make the prison projects benefit this county as much as possible and to harm it as little as possible.

By his comments Friday, Kelso made it clear the negotiations will be tough. Get any agreement in writing. A promise and a handshake aren’t good enough.