Clark County’s place in risk pool might be at risk

Settlement of wrongful conviction case could play role in fate




A months-old legal settlement could cost Clark County not just a bundle of cash, but also its opportunity to buy low-cost insurance through the Washington Counties Risk Pool.

When that decision will be made, however, remains shrouded.

It could be decided, or at least discussed, as early as this month. The risk pool’s next semi-annual board meeting takes place during its three-day conference, scheduled for March 26 to 28 at the Lodge at Suncadia in Cle Elum.

Clark County officials, however, say they don’t expect the board to make a decision until the member counties know whether the pool is financially on the hook for a multimillion-dollar settlement reached in a wrongful conviction case. That’s tied up in the superior courts of King and Cowlitz counties.

Any payoff from the risk pool would financially affect 27 counties that are part of the risk pool cooperative.

The dispute between Clark County and the risk pool stems from a September settlement, in which the county agreed to pay $10.5 million to Larry Davis and Alan Northrop. The two men were wrongfully convicted of a 1993 rape and spent 17 years behind bars. While each man was awarded $5.25 million from Clark County, the county’s settlement agreement also authorized them to sue the Washington Counties Risk Pool for as much as $24 million.

The risk pool says the authorization to sue was a direct violation of its interlocal agreement with Clark County. At the center of the clash is that Northrop and Davis were found guilty, by way of a botched sheriff’s office investigation, nine years before the county became a member of the risk pool.

Tammy Devlin, the board president for the Washington Counties Risk Pool, said she couldn’t comment on the future of Clark County’s status within the pool because of pending legal action.

Mark Wilsdon, the county’s risk manager, said he expected a discussion to take place at this month’s meeting but was unsure whether the board would rule on Clark County’s fate.

“I don’t think it’s ripe for a decision yet because there’s still court action out there,” he said. In November the risk pool sued Clark County for breach of contract. The suit is pending in Cowlitz County Superior Court.

Talk of Clark County losing its membership in the pool has been ongoing for months. The risk pool is organized to provide members better insurance rates as a group than they would receive individually.

Since last year, the risk pool has maintained that there are grounds to yank the county’s membership, something Clark County requested the board not to do in a Nov. 6 written apology.

On Nov. 14, the board responded with a letter officially putting the county on notice for violating the terms of the agreement. The county has yet to explain how it plans to correct or nullify the violations.

Wilsdon said the reason for that is because it might not be possible for the county to correct the violations. That’s because Northrop and Davis’ attempt to recoup costs from the risk pool is currently tied up in court.

Commissioner Steve Stuart, meanwhile, said he was confident the dispute would “be resolved in a way that … keeps all of us in that risk pool with the understanding of what not to do.”

The prospect of kicking a member out of a risk pool is unprecedented, said Vyrle Hill, the risk pool’s executive director. The objective behind the pool is to share risk, he said, but with that comes a sense of duty and obligation to the other members.

Statewide, he said, no risk pool has ever kicked out a member for violating the terms of its interlocal agreement.

Ultimately, he said, it’s unclear how much the risk pool may have to pay out.

“We don’t know what the ultimate demand will be,” Hill said. “We are letting it weigh out in court.”