The Public Locked out of Jail Selection Process

On Wednesday, I was politely kicked out of a Whatcom County Council meeting while they discussed the property they planned to buy for the new jail. Because they were discussing the bargaining process for purchasing a piece of property, they went into executive session and the public was removed.

But wait, you say, they already decided on a location? When did that happen? I, too, was surprised that this major decision had flown under the radar, so I started to piece together the series of events that led to the sheriff and county executive selecting a property (and apparently a jail planner) without any public input.

Last year, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, Sheriff Bill Elfo, and the County Council faced pressure from the public over the $150 million dollar price tag and 844 bed size of the jail the sheriff was proposing. Over 300 people showed up at a public meeting to express their outrage over this monstrosity that would require doubling, and then tripling the rate of incarceration in our county to fill it. In response to the public outpouring, the county council formed the Jail Planning Task Force, that contained both big jail proponents (Wendy Jones, Chief Corrections Deputy; Ray Baribeau; Bill Elfo, campaign donor and volunteer;) and members of the “Right Size Jail” coalition (Lisa McShane, Barbara Sternberger).

This task force met for almost a year and compiled a list of recommendations. You can find their meeting minutes and final recommendations here. In April of this year, they presented their recommendations to the county council. Out of their research and discussion came some key points:

  • They urged the county to hire a jail planner who would reexamine some of the initial flawed assessments that led to the proposed garish 844 bed facility.
  • They recommended a much smaller 500-700 beds for the new jail. “Based on information gathered to date, the JPTF has determined that it is reasonable to estimate that the number of beds required for initial construction should be in the range of 500-700.” This fits more in line with other communities of similar size (see my chart here).
  • As for the location, they recommended the jail be a “reasonable” drive to the courthouse, positioned centrally in the county, and close to I-5.

Throughout this process, Louws pushed for a quick selection of the jail property, but many on the JPTF urged the county to secure a jail planner first. You can read the back and forth here. In the end, it was agreed the county would search for both concurrently.

About a month after the Jail Planning Task Force shut down, a new group launched called Public Safety Now – Build a Safe Jail. As I outlined in an earlier post, this group was formed almost entirely of Bill Elfo’s former campaign committee and seemed to be funded from the $12,000 leftover in his campaign account. They were able to hire a local videographer to produce some professional videos, put them on YouTube, and design a sleek website.

Just one problem, they completely missed the point of the earlier outrage. The concern wasn’t over any of the “objections” they mention on their website, it was that the proposed facility was too big and too expensive for our community. It was essential to scale it back to something more reasonable before moving ahead. But this Elfo-funded group was unconcerned with such details, and began cranking up the demand for immediate construction of a jail.

In July, Louws put out a public call for property submissions. He received piles and piles of applications from property owners looking to sell their empty lot to the county. Currently, I have a public records request out on the process used to winnow down the sites, but here is a pdf of some of the top contenders. Pay special note to page 6, because that was their final choice.

On Oct 24th this year, a riot broke out in our current jail and the sheriff was quick to capitalize on it. Sending out a press release, which was echoed by the Public Safety Now group, Elfo hit the familar notes of needing a new jail immediately. “A major contributing factor to this incident is the deteriorated and insufficient jail facility.”

At some point during this time, Louws and Elfo reassembled the often-dormant Law and Justice Council for Whatcom County, who then met and decided where they believed the jail should be, and who should be the official jail planner. Since that group’s membership, minutes, and almost all information about them are not available online, I have no idea what process they went through or even who “they” are, much less how they came to these selections. Again, I have submitted a public records request and hope to have that information soon.

On November 7th, Louws and Elfo met with the council to inform them they had selected a planner and a property, and to discuss their bargaining strategy. This is the meeting where I showed up. While there, council member Ken Mann asked if it was necessary to go into executive session. Louws argued it was, since the council was discussing purchase prices. Mann, thankfully, raised the issue of public involvement and asked if the public had been brought into the process. Louws responded that at the county council meeting scheduled for December 4th, Louws would bring forth the list of properties and explain why their choice was the superior one, then get the public (and the council’s) blessing. Former county executive and current council member, Pete Kremen, offered, “You can’t involve people unless you have something for them to consider.” Louws followed with, “Our committee has been meeting and discussing this. If people want to know about it, they can do a public records request and find out.” At that, Mann relented and I was politely escorted out to the hallway.

The next morning, Elfo returned to work at the sheriff’s office and informed all the deputies where the new jail was going to be located (see picture on right). I decided to see what this location looked like, so on my lunch break, Bryna and I drove out there to examine the property ourselves.

I’m not a professional assessor, but here are my impressions. It is relatively accessible from I-5. Google Maps informs me it is a fourteen minute drive from the county courthouse. It is nestled between a junkyard and a slaughterhouse (see pictures below) so no worries of nearby hospitals or schools. Finally, the ground itself seems pretty level and ready to be developed. In short, not a bad choice from my unprofessional view.

However, the issue isn’t really whether or not this is a good location for the jail. It is that Elfo and Louws have picked out a location and selected a jail planner without any significant input from the public. That is the same sort of bull-headed thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Who is this mysterious jail planner? Do they recognize that jail populations are trending down each year, even before we legalized marijuana a couple days ago? Will this property be used to build a giant, sprawling 844 bed facility or a more modest 600 bed facility? These are essential questions that need answering and so far the public has been locked out of the process.

It seems Elfo and Louws have already made up their minds about what they want and now are just looking for us, the public, to sign off on their decisions. That is not involving the public, and I hope both of them will take a step back and reassess how they can bring more citizens to the table for this process.

I will update this story as I get access to more public records and, of course, after the Dec. 4th meeting.

About Riley Sweeney

Past Writers • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Comments by Readers

Dan Pike

Nov 12, 2012

Riley,

Thanks for posting this.  For a variety of reasons, this jail proposal is a mistake if it keeps going in the direction it’s headed.  Besides the size issues you raise—and 600 beds is too large—the location is in Ferndale.  That may seem like no big deal, but Bellingham is the County Seat.  Again, reasonable people will say, “So what?”

The big deal is that the county courts must be located in the county seat, e.g., Bellingham.  That means hearings, etcetera, must be help in the County Courthouse.  That means transporting each prisoner multiple times between the jail and the courthouse.  Besides the fuel cost, which will likely grow at a rate faster than inflation for years, safety costs are even more consequential.  The Sheriff will likely claim that videoconferencing the inmates in will suffice, but that is the Court’s prerogative first, and the right to face one’s accuser may not be satisfied by a television feed. 

Then there’s the issue of visitation.  Besides the ethical obviousness that all people deserve contact with their loved ones, from a practical standpoint, regular family visits result in a safer jail; safer for the inmates, but also safer for the corrections officers and other personnel working in the jail environment.  These are just a few of the costs associated with the move—are they accounted for in the budget?  If so, show us where.

Then there’s the strategic thinking that seems absent from the conversations about what to build, where to build it, and how big it ought to be.  Following the City Club discussion of the jail a year and a half ago, I was speaking with a local CEO.  That leader said he did not understand why, especially in the economic climate we’re in, the County is discussing building a jail larger than a few hundred beds.  He said a good leader would address the problem in a manner which solved the key issues, both materially and financially.  He pointed out that the jail as imagined at that point—and as it is still being discussed today—envisions all cells built to a security beyond what is needed for most inmates.  A few truly hard-core lifers need the Charlie Manson security, but most could be triaged into less secure, more affordable situations.  Minimum security ought to be dealt with as much as possible through electronic monitoring, so that population could continue holding jobs while they did their time, being less of a drain on society—and covering the sots of their monitoring—in the process.  A second group would be appropriately housed in a moderately secure facility—perhaps co-located with a higher security facility for the few true incorrigibles.

And as you pointed out, the need for jail space has been declining for a variety of reasons over the past few years; the advent of marijuana reform may accelerate that trend.  Let’s make sure we are not building a white elephant—as Yakima has done with its jail.

Go back, re-read the Jail Planning Task Force Report, adjust for marijuana reform, and bring on a jail [planner who can actually help us build the jail we need, not the jail Bill Elfo seems to want so badly. We cannot afford a mistake of this size; where is the fiscal prudence this administration promises?

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