The New Jail: Pete? Let’s have a talk

County Executive Pete Kremen? Can we have a talk? Look, I know you did not want to hold a public hearing about this proposed jail. That's why, after seven years of working on this, it took over 70 citizens petitioning you to hold a hearing about it. We had to use state law to compel you to hold a public hearing and you failed to even do that (read Jean Melious' take on why this was not a legal hearing.) But enough about the how we got there, let's talk about what happened at the meeting.

At the meeting, I heard you and your staff run away from your plan to spend $150 million on a jail that is too big and too expensive for our community. I saw the outrage from the 325 citizens who showed up to tell you why this wouldn't work. They pulled reams of research from similar communities and notes about successful social services programs that reduce incarceration rates. They raised concerns about the wetland you are planning to build this on and questioned why we are building a facility three times the size of the Bellis Fair Mall. Community members showed up in droves, demanding answers about why the old jail, a facility barely 25 years old, is now nearly condemned. They came armed with research drawn from your own plans about what would be a good fit for our community.

What was your response? To tell the community not to believe what you put down in writing: that this jail will be a sprawling 844 bed facility. But to read your lips: you wanted people to think that it is just a worst-case scenario and that it will actually be smaller.

My question for you is: why were you were surprised when we did not believe you?

The people of Whatcom County are losing faith in their County government. I do not want to see you squander the public trust. Remember back in 2004 when we approved a tax for a new jail? We were saying, "Here, take some of our money because we believe this is important. We don't mind the increase, this is what we need to do to maintain a civil and safe society."

Where is that money now? It is gone. This issue goes beyond partisanship. This jail you have proposed is too big and too expensive for our community. What we need now is courageous leadership to say, "Yes, we need a jail, let's make sure it is the right size. I'm pulling the brakes on this project, firing the consulting firm that has bilked us for so much of the public's money, and fast-tracking a jail that will fit our needs." The community would stand behind you for that sort of leadership, for a leader who recognizes that this is a deadend the people will not support. We need that sort of leadership right now.

So Pete, I'm asking you to stand up and lead us out of this dead end. I hope we can come together and find a solution worthy of our community.

About Riley Sweeney

Past Writers • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Comments by Readers

John Lesow

Feb 05, 2011

One of the semi-persuasive arguments for a larger than necessary jail is the need to accomodate individuals arrested for border violations.  Border security is a great ruse to justify lots of pork barrel projects that local pols love.

Prior to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, our County Executive traipsed back to Washington, DC, with a $71 million dollar wish list to allow Whatcom County to prepare for the Olympics.

Of course we would need a larger jail to house the flood of miscreants that would stream into Whatcom County during the Olympic games.  The logic was that visitors (and terrorists) would see the Games as a convenient cover to do evil against the Great Satan.  As well as those regular folks that would become bored with the Curling events (who wouldn’t) and slip away to Whatcom County for a little Indian Gambling with some premium BC Bud in their rucksacks. 

So of course we need more money for border issues, which included money for a new…...Fireboat.

The fireboat was part of the $71 million wish list because…well, the Cherry Point Refinery is a strategic target for terrorist activity…and…we don’t have sufficient resources in Whatcom County—including a fireboat—to battle the conflagration that would ensue following a terrorist attack on the refinery.  So a new Fireboat became part of the wish list.

Fortunately, the feds were lukewarm to the idea of dishing out this kind of money for projects with a low cost benefit.  But you can’t blame our Executive for trying…along with his amen chorus in the building, real estate and public service lobby.

It is no accident that the new jail site is in closer proximity to the U.S. Border.  Sure, it’s too big for Whatcom County.  But not when you consider the possibilities for populating it with an infinite supply of border scofflaws.

The truth is that local conservatives, liberals and governments love big government. And big jails. And big programs, as long as their personal finances are not heavily taxed. 

Last week, the governments of British Columbia and Washington State signed an agreement to “work together to prepare for and try to limit climate change”.  The governments pledged to “work together to promote public awareness of higher sea levels and the effect on coastal areas and to limit carbon emissions by the two governments”.  I’m not making this up.

Maybe one way to “limit carbon emissions” would be to discourage those long border lineups that are pretty much the rule nowadays at Peach Arch and Douglas.  Instead, we have every real estate pitchperson encouraging Canadians to come to Whatcom County and buy land.  And every Chamber of Commerce type doing their level best to water down border security, (the Bellingham Chamber’s campaign against the Passport Requirement comes to mind) and encourage Canadians to come down and shop for those low priced bargains from China that litter the shelves of every big box store in Whatcom County.

The mantra that binds our County Executive, Our Chambers of Commerce and our local Tea Party heroes and heroines is Privatize the Profits and Socialize the Risks.  This is the current mindset that makes Bigger Jails, Bigger Regional Shopping Centers, Bigger Fireboats and Bigger Government Programs to feed bigger egos so appealing. 

And as long as the cost is being spread around, no one objects too much.


Larry Horowitz

Feb 05, 2011


Thank you.  Thank you for taking time to write this article and for highlighting the public?s concerns about the issues with the new jail as well as the lack of public trust in our local government(s).

While I am not informed enough to add anything to what you and others have written, as someone who writes about issues that do concern me enough to get educated, I just wanted you to know I appreciate you looking out for the rest of us.



David Camp

Feb 05, 2011

Riley - Good points all. What surprised me about the meeting was how surprised the assembled officers of Law and Justice in the County (Judges Snider and Grant; County Exec Kremen and Asst Exec Dessler; Head of Correctional services Jones, Sheriff Elfo, Prosecutor McKechran) were by the almost universal opposition by the assembled citizens to their plans. They had intended I think to have a “we tell and you ask questions, little people” meeting but what they got was a sensible and heartfelt statement that their fantasy of a gigantic greenfield jail, conceived at the peak of the boom and designed by HDR, prime consultant to the prison-industrial complex, was not going to happen. That is - the people who have to pay for the thing   WON’T PAY FOR IT!

I’m still waiting for the cost comparisons to support the Exec’s assertions that:
1) it will be cheaper to operate a sinlge-story new jail out in the county compared to a multi-story jail in B’ham;
2) it is necessary to consolidate into a single facility;
3) there are no alternatives to jailing the people who currently occupy the jail.

I did, however, obtain a breakdown of the current (well, as of 1/20/2010 - it would be useful to get more recent figures) composition of people incarcerated:

Total jailed pop’n: 243 (this is a much lower number than the 437 touted at the meeting - I suspect that the main difference is the work release population housed at the Bakerview facility, but am waiting for confirmation)
Of which: Felons : 176 Misdemeanants: 67

Among the felons 33, or 13.5% of the total population, are in for “drugs”. I’ve asked how many of these are non-violent since I suspect most are and why we’re jailing non-violent offenders is beyond me.

Among the misdemeanants, 13, or 5.4% of the total, are in for DWLS (driving with a suspended licence). Again, why are we jailing these people? Impound their cars!

I am having a hard time believing the numbers we’re being presented with, and an even harder time accepting the conclusions and plans that the County exec has come up with. But one conclusion is inescapable: there isn’t the money to do what these folks have dreamed up at vast expense. They’ll just have to do what everyone else who works for a living has had to do - get creative and figure out how to do more with less.

Or - face recall!


Todd Granger

Feb 05, 2011


Of course only Pete and associates could confuse a simple GMA issue, like the jail.

WHO! should be in jail?

A local government must examine and consider locating urban growth first in areas characterized byexisting growth with existing public facilities and services. Only after such examination and consideration should a local government then examine the second area of characterization by urban
growth to be later served adequately by existing public facilities and services and any additional needed
public facilities and services. Only after exhaustive consideration of the first two locations should a
local government place urban growth in the remaining portions of IUGAs or UGAs. C.U.S.T.E.R v. Whatcom County 96-2-0008 (Final Decision and Order, 9-12-96)


Todd Granger

Feb 09, 2011

Jail Planning 1980?

Where future planning includes “None” whatsoever.

Whatcom County v. City of Bellingham


In August 1980, Bellingham’s Mayor told the City Council the City could no longer afford a jail system. He proposed that the City transfer the jail and court system (except for minor cases in which jail sentences were not involved) to the County. Accordingly, the Council’s Public Safety Committee recommended the transfer of the city jail and court system to the County, except for minor offenses involving fines. The County’s district court was informed that the transfer would occur in January 1981.?1? The Mayor also requested that arrangements be made for the County to house “any future Municipal prisoners . . . should the rare occasion arise when under some little-used section of the Municipal Code, this becomes necessary.” Clerk’s Papers at 102. The Mayor told the City Attorney and Police Department to draft ordinances “repealing those sections of the Municipal Code which currently include jailable offenses.” Clerk’s Papers at 103. The ordinances were drafted and introduced.

There should be a Ordinance for “jailable offenses” that would include County Planning, shown best here again, with no future planning whatsoever, the County’s 30 year jail plan?

Against another local jail complex 140 years old, WHEREAS, even Andrew Johnson(D) knew where a few local politicians would end their carreer, like the great George Janovitch(D), Pierce County Sheriff lived for a few years!
On January 22, 1867, Congress authorized the establishment of a territorial jail in the Washington Territory. On September 17, 1870, the Federal Government purchased 27.27 acres on McNeil Island for a federal prison, which officially opened in 1875. These 27 acres are the site of the main penitentiary complex today.

Facebook Google LinkedIn Print Reddit Twitter