Franklin County is looking for a way to protect itself should someone get hurt at the museum in Pasco.
Commissioner Brad Peck is worried because Washington's joint and several liability law could make the county pay all the damages related to an accident or incident at the Franklin County Historical Museum, even if it were only found to be 1 percent liable, he said.
"We've got an old building with steep stairs that sometimes get icy in winter," Peck said. "The joint and several liability law is ridiculous, but you can see how that can create a situation where I have to balance the interest of 80,000 Franklin County citizens and the interest of the museum, which we value greatly."
The county purchased the building from the city of Pasco, but doesn't own it outright because of a clause in the contract that requires the county to keep it as a museum or have the city retake it. The county asked the city to eliminate the clause so the county could gradually transfer the museum over to the Franklin County Historical Society, which leases the museum from the county, Peck said.
But so far, the city hasn't wanted to do that, Mayor Matt Watkins said.
"We wanted to make sure that it stays a museum," Watkins said. "That clause in the contract is there for a reason, so to take that out, they could have that discussion of whether it should stay a museum or not."
Watkins is open to further proposals from the county, he said.
The historical society also is resistant to taking control of the museum, at least until the expiration of its lease agreement with the county, which has several more years on it.
Museum administrator Sherel Webb said taking ownership of the building might be feasible if the museum wanted to add an additional wing, but she feels the county's liability fears are overblown.
"That kind of thing has never happened," she said of serious accidents.
The museum has been considering expansion since it purchased three lots on Bonneville Street, east of the museum, last year. But it doesn't have the money to expand, Webb said, and hasn't decided whether it would add on to its existing building or have separate buildings should it expand.
"We're looking at a lot of different alternatives at this time," she said.
The county, too, is looking at different alternatives to help it with potential liability at the museum, Peck said. While the county has insurance, Peck would like to see the museum agree to cover the county's deductible should something happen.
"There are a number of potential solutions," he said.
The county has no intentions of making the building anything other than a museum, Peck said.
"That's a great part of Franklin County, and we want to support it any way we can," he said.
Peck would like to see an agreement where the county gives the museum to the historical society, in exchange for museum volunteers helping the county with programs like its historic documents, Peck said.
The museum's building was built in 1910 as part of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie's worldwide library construction program. The historical museum opened in 1982, almost two decades after the new library opened.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom