Both Councils Ignore Jail Studies
Criminal justice reform took a hit this week as Bellingham and County councils ignored reports from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Incarceration and Prevention Task Force
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Over time and through multiple changes in the make-up of the County Council, Whatcom County elected officials have:
(1) hand-picked jail industry consultants (for more than a decade) to site and design the new jail complex using county-determined criteria,
(2) used inaccurate legal and factual arguments to advance only one plan for a new main jail/sheriff’s complex,
(3) suppressed and ignored public debate on the county’s controversial jail plan, and
(4) tried to herd citizens to vote yes on Proposition 2015-1—or a blank check to the county for a horizontal jail facility on 40 acres outside the county seat of Bellingham—with a 32,000 square foot sheriff’s headquarters and a main jail with up to 2450 beds.
The county has spent enormous sums of taxpayer funds on jail industry consultants who benefit directly from recommending exactly what our elected county officials have told them is needed—a large scale horizontal jail and sheriff’s headquarters outside the county seat and the law and justice center in downtown Bellingham.
In 2002, the county commissioned a “master plan study of its corrections facilities, including a space needs assessment.” This “master plan study” was referenced in a 2010 document prepared by long-time Whatcom County consultant HDR entitled “Whatcom County Adult Corrections Facilities and Sheriff’s Headquarters Site Evaluation Report dated July 2, 2010, by HDR in Bellevue, WA] [the “2010 HDR Report,” page 1]. The 2010 HDR Report specifically states:
“In 2002, the County commissioned a master plan study of its corrections facilities, including a space needs assessment. The study concluded that existing facilities were experiencing difficulty in accommodating actual growth, and were unable to accommodate projected growth.” [2010 HDR Report, page 1].
HDR does not attach a copy of this “master plan study” to its report, and does not identify who actually performed the work. Information about this “Master Facilities Planning,” first appeared in the August 13, 2002, Minutes of the Whatcom County Council’s Finance and Administrative Services Committee. County Administrator Dewey Desler explained that the Master Plan would be for all county buildings, but would be “a precursor to construction of a jail…”. [8/13/2002 Finance Minutes p. 2].
In fact, it was HDR that was one of the primary consultants retained by the county to do the Phase 1 of this “master plan study” referenced in HDR’s 2010 Report. The contracts awarded were:
(1) HDR (with an initial $102,357 contract later increased to $127,357),
(2) OMNI-Group, Inc. (with an initial $152,195 contract, and
(3) Steward & King Partnership (architects, with an initial $94,375—which excluded any jail work as out of their area of expertise).
The state provided a $50,000 grant, which brought the total cost (for Phase 1 only) of the Master Plan to $423,927.00.
The county executive’s stated objective for this “Master Plan,” was to “lay out a master facilities plan before [the County] make[s] any other major decisions on the investments in buildings [for the County].” County Administrator Dewey Desler promoted the Master Plan as one that would ultimately prevent county waste of funds “on investments, modifications, adjustments, or repairs when they are not planning to use that space or site in the future.” [Whatcom County Council Committee of the Whole, 8/13/2002, p. 4]. Desler added that “ultimately, in a very public process, the people of the community will help the County make those decisions.” Architect King cautioned the council that typically, facility “operational costs are ten times higher than the capital cost.”
No written Phase 1 Master Plan (or the planned Phase II and III) is available for review. By January 13, 2004, HDR President Harris Faulkin was still talking about the HDR “process to look at the data and quality of existing buildings,” without providing any information about the details of that process. Without reference to any evidence or study, he stated (as recorded in council meeting minutes) that with respect to the jail (also known as the Public Safety Building):
The public safety building is unsatisfactory. Get out of that building sooner rather than later. It is seismically vulnerable. Adding a floor is a bad idea. He is very concerned about life safety. One individual controls all the doors opening and closing. That person sits over a floor that is not very well done. If that person is lost by fire or smoke, the inmates and corrections officers are at risk. This building probably has to be operational another six or eight years. That’s all the life that is left in it.
HDR further promoted a 50-acre site for a new jail, and Councilmember Crawford responded:
It would be an interesting statement for the County Council to say it will preserve rural areas, and then expand on a 50-acre facility. The County may decide it’s worth the cost to expand vertically. It’s a statement to the community. There’s an element of this that goes beyond costs and goes into community character.
[January 13, 2004, Finance and Administrative Services Committee minutes, p. 16.][Emphasis added].
Sheriff Bill Elfo responded that “he’s been told from another consultant that the costs are far higher with a vertical jail than a horizontal jail. He would provide cost and personnel estimates on the difference.”
At this point, 18 months into Phase 1 of the “Master Plan,” there was no written plan to review and present to the public. Councilmember McShane observed that there were “serious process issues” and “the Councilmembers are all over the place on this topic.” Further confusing the issues, the sheriff quotes an unidentified consultant regarding the cost differences between vertical and horizontal jail construction, with no actual evidence-based factual analysis specifically relevant to the jail in Bellingham.
Two weeks later, in a Special County Council Meeting on February 3, 2004, Councilmembers Caskey-Schreiber and McShane both stated that a draft plan should be presented to the public, which might generate public input. Councilmember Roy observed that “[o]bviously, the contractor and administration has already decided on its criteria, without including the council. She’s uncomfortable with that.” [2/3/2004, Special County Council – Master Facilities Planning minutes, p. 2-3.]. The council was recognizing that HDR and county administrators were colluding in pushing forward a shared plan for a large-scale jail.
Part of the scope of HDR’s work was to project the need for space and parking for the law and justice-related buildings in downtown Bellingham. HDR President Harris Faulkin told the council that there were then 500 parking “stalls” in the civic center area, but that there was a need for at least 1,600 parking stalls. He cited no authority for this assessment. He then estimated that by 2022 “[t]he need will grow to 2,400 stalls … driven heavily by law and justice needs.” Incredibly, he suggested that to accommodate the level of parking that would be necessary in 2022 the county would need to build a 10-story parking garage. [Whatcom County Council Finance and Administrative Services Committee, January 13, 2004, p. 12]. We are now six (6) years from 2022, proving that “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future” (Nils Bohr, Nobel laureate in Physics).
By 2004 (2 years after HDR’s initial contract) there was still no public written report of Phase 1 of the “Master Plan,” for which the county paid HDR and other nearly $425,000.00. In its February 3, 2004 meeting, The County Council appears to be discussing a written list of main jail site options provided by HDR, but that document was not included (as an attachment) to the minutes or otherwise available for review on the county website. There is no set of minutes, any resolution, ordinance or contract available in the online archives that either references a final written version of this plan or provides a copy for review. However, it was this “Master Study Plan” that was used to support the county’s request for taxpayer funding (the 2004 “jail tax” or Proposition 1) that voters approved for the construction of the minimum security Jail Work Center on Division Street completed in November 2006.
The HDR “reports” that were apparently used to justify the 2004 Jail Tax and the 150-bed Minimum Security Jail Work Center are missing in action; yet the foundation of much of the work that follows flows from HDR’s original conclusions.
the county could support citizen inclusion, public transparency and accountability by making available any reports that have been—at any time—commissioned, approved and funded by the county in the county’s online archives (which purport to be—and should be—all-inclusive). Taxpaying citizens should not be forced to either go to the library to search for taxpayer-funded reports, or use unwieldy legal channels—like a formal Request for Disclosure—to attempt to get taxpayer-funded reports or information (The county has a record of incomplete or non-responses to citizens and media). Therefore, this work is based upon public documents available in the Whatcom County online archives.