Making a Jail: Bamboozle!

With a smarmy October Surprise

With a smarmy October Surprise

The jail proposal is wrought with troubling contradictions.  The only way to prevent a massive misappropriation of public funds - a tax heist - is to vote down Prop. 2015-1 and start over on a downtown jail, next to the courthouse with good programs out front to keep folks out of jail.  Just google criminal justice reform.  Everybody’s doing it. Just not here.

Proponents say the jail is crumbling, that important structural supports were removed from the basement when the sheriff turned a storage area into offices.  Amazingly, the building shows no outward signs of decay.  It is straight and square, without cracks or evidence of strain.  According to reports from construction savvy folks unfortunate enough to have spent some time inside, there is little interior evidence of actual failure, other than shoddy plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems that probably were never properly installed and which evidently have not been competently maintained.  Voters already approved a tax to improve the jail, but despite that resource, the administration has apparently decided it was not a priority.  Even more interesting is the extreme disinterest the county has exhibited for actually assessing the damage, planning improvements or implementing repairs.  It’s just not a priority.  It  appears there have been no studies or plans or cost estimates developed to compare.  The county instead plans to tear it down.  They must really want that big, flat, remote (BFR) jail.

Because of problems stemming from neglect and mismanagement, those who want a new jail say the current one is overcrowded and inhumane.  But it is also apparently not a priority to follow the law that provides for remedying the problems. Instead, they’ve stuffed it with as many prisoners as possible and held them for as long as possible, driving stats in the direction that bolsters their argument - amazingly exactly the opposite of statewide numbers showing declines in crime and bookings.  They can make it happen - only in Whatcom County.

And then there's the overcrowding. The restorative justice folks have identified 15 ways the jail is kept packed: sweeping up the poor and homeless who linger for lack of bail, stacking charges that complicate hearings, postponing hearings for clerical reasons, and affording inmates less “good time” credit that even state prisons allow.  Jail proponents tout their expenditures on diversionary programs but are careful not to distinguish between pre-and post-booking programs, even though their own staff stresses the importance and necessity of the former.

Speaking of jail taxes, we also passed a tax for mental health services.  According to sources in agencies thus concerned, none of the $3+ million collected annually seems to have actually made its way to the streets to benefit the people getting swept into the jail.  The agencies were, however, quietly warned that opposing the jail project could jeopardize their other funding.  That is truly bad form and should not be rewarded. 

No matter where you look, the jail proposal doesn’t pass the smell test - literally.

Sheriff Elfo is on record stating he is unable to provide fresh outside air to his inmates as required by law.  Therefore, he asserts it is better to move the entire operation into a BFR jail in one of the darkest holes between Bellingham and Ferndale - immediately adjacent and downwind of an animal rendering plant, an industrial incinerator, a scrap yard running heavy diesel equipment, a municipal solid waste staging area, a garbage dump and an industrial smokestack, sandwiched between a railroad with diesel locomotives hauling coal and bomb trains and an interstate highway, directly under the landing path of the nearby airport.  Brilliant!  But it sounds more like hot air than fresh air.

Details of the land acquisition are a bit smelly, too.  Besides the fact that the sale of Jack Louws nearby property to Homeland Security set an unprecedented comparable-value benchmark, there are other questionable issues.  The county bought 39 acres at $150k each, but can only use 29 due to wetland and archeological issues.  They expect to develop just under 20 acres. Available immediately across the street is a 25 acre parcel without wetland encumbrances.  Both properties are served by the same utilities and were appraised by the same appraiser.  Guess what?  The property across the street is $2 million less expensive.  Perhaps it is the proximity to the rendering plant that adds value to the county’s favored property?  

There’s more.  This property wended its way from Wilder to the county through a series of shell corporations.  Some of the property was formerly owned by Thermal Reduction, which was also owned by Wilder.  Thermal Reduction was once somewhat infamous for the indiscreet dumping of toxic incinerator ash that created environmental problems including contamination of soil and water with nickel, cadmium, lead and other things found in municipal solid waste.  Yes, there are indications of that ash on and around the property, but only nine test cores were examined along one edge.  It is possible the ash was scraped off earlier, but contamination may still remain.  It is just as likely that a BFR jail is needed to cover up someone’s liability as to achieve any operational or fiscal benefits.  Or perhaps there really is a plan afoot to move the county seat to Ferndale.  That would please a lot of nearby landowners hungry for up-zones and land use conversions.

And what about the BFR jail?  Why not a vertical structure downtown, next to the courthouse?  The county has a rationale, but it’s pretty darn weak.  Actually, it is inaccurate, specious and ridiculous in turns.  The very documents cited by the county actually say a central jail near the courthouse is best. The U.S. DOJ writes:  “Historically, most jails were built next to the courthouse to allow the easy transfer of inmates to and from court. That proximity is still desirable today…If land is available adjacent to the downtown jail, the jurisdiction probably will choose to build a multistory structure to accommodate the desired capacity” and their Jail Design Guide states:  “Maintaining efficient and secure movement of inmates between the jail and the courts may be the single most critical linkage. A direct physical connection is most desirable…” , and further cautioning that, “The impact of the facility location on staffing results primarily from the need to transport inmates between jail and court. A significant amount of staff time can be consumed by this task, possibly to the point of requiring more personnel”.

The county argument against a vertical jail downtown asserts that “the entire structure would need to be shelled out at initial construction” and a building of 30 to 40 stories would be required.  That’s not true.  Towers are routinely built in phases.  You can’t make this stuff up.  Well, they can but…  The truth of the matter is that they just want a BFR jail and so, “...consideration of an urban site which would require a vertical tower or towers was not performed.”  They cite Spokane’s findings that a BFR jail would would cost $36 million less than a vertical tower but gloss over the finding that it would cost $1.3 million more in operating and transportation costs.  Over a fifty year planning outlook, that reverses the fiscal conclusion to nearly $30 million in favor of a central jail.  They conclude by reporting that Spokane elected to build a BFR jail.  That’s not true, either.  Spokane now appears to be consolidating their criminal justice operations, while trimming $66 million off their original plans.

The sheriff is quick to point out that even though the proposed site is further from Bellingham, it is closer for other jurisdictions.  That’s not strictly true and avoids the fact that the preponderance of arrests originate in Bellingham and the inconvenience will be felt by all the attorneys, purveyors of bail bonds, families wanting to stay in touch with their incarcerated members, and the prisoners themselves upon release.

The jail proponents’ logic became so fuzzy that council member Rud Browne finally sponsored a resolution asking the county executive to detail several particulars needed to make rational comparisons in hopes of providing interested parties a basis for understanding the project.  The resolution was quietly withdrawn and left without committee assignment.

Now comes a glossy, oversized, map-fold promo piece for the jail mailed from the county to voters.  The piece was prepared by a jail design consultant to the county that stands to benefit nicely from the project - clearly a biased source.  According to sources, it cost more than a dollar per piece to print.  Design and postage are as yet unknown to the public.  One council member asked the administration where in the budget this expenditure was hidden.  County Executive Jack Louws stood ready with girded loins first thing the next morning, armed with a letter asserting the mailer was a “fair and factual presentation of the new jail project.” He cites Public Disclosure Commission guidance allowing “jurisdiction-wide fact sheets" for such projects.  However, the guidance quoted clearly states, “Such a presentation must accurately portray the cost and other anticipated impacts of a ballot proposition.”  That provision appears to have been studiously ignored. 

If the flier was their October Surprise, voters should consider the facts and give Louws, Elfo, McEachran, and the jail tax a hearty November surprise.

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

Hue Beattie

Oct 16, 2015

The voter’s guide with the pro and con for ballot issues is the legal charter mandated way to inform the public on ballot issues. Jack Louws and Bill Elfo are candidates. They are featured in this propaganda piece. A violation of election law in my opinion.


Michael Chiavario

Oct 16, 2015

Thanks Tip for the excellent analysis. This is not the only reason to not vote for Jack. He is a pleasant fellow and an experienced administrator. Unfortunately he presides over a group Department fiefdoms whose Directors need to only please him, not be competent or good managers. There is no 360 review in any department. There is no policy of collaborative relationships between staff and management and the low morale and boondoggles (see Parks, Facilities, and HR for a few of the worst with low morale to boot.
I don’t know why the Dems didn’t endorse his progressive opponent, Joy Gilfillen and why the Weekly endorsed him.
Just being a nice guy is not what we need in an Executive. What we need is vision and courage. Joy Gilfillen has both of those.
Michael Chiavario


Tip Johnson

Oct 17, 2015

In addition to the County executive’s’ letter referenced above, the County was also prepared with a broader Press Release including a link to the contract used as a defense because it was approved by the Council.

Press Release:


Public outreach is not “specifically described” in either section 2.6 - Design Services or section 2.7 - Construction Phase Services.  It is therefore covered under section 2.8 - Additional Services:

2.8.1 - Additional Services, if any, agreed upon by the parties shall be compensated as set forth in Exhibit A or in an amendment to this Agreement. Additional Services are those services not specifically described as part of Services in this Agreement.

That means there must be an agreement or an amendment.  A paper trail in either case.  Jack didn’t mention that and it wasn’t in the press release.  Which is it?  Where is it?  Public outreach additional services are described in Exhibit A:

Public Outreach -
Provide public outreach and support on an as needed hourly not to exceed basis. Scope of services will accommodate approximately 500 man hours to public outreach expertise and support services.
• Assistance in developing a coordinated message and developing graphics to support the message. Graphics include images of existing facilities that illustrate intent of the Whatcom County Jail, and rendering of the facility on a site.

Well, they definitely hit the main bits.  A “coordinated message and…graphics to support the message”. That’s “fair and factual”, right? Compensation is described in Exhibit B:

24 Public Outreach - As Needed Hourly, Not to Exceed $86,138

500 hours for $86k?  That just a bit north of $172/hr! 

Propaganda pays! Where did I go wrong?  I’m doing this for free.

How on earth did Council members miss this?  I can’t believe they were surprised 😉


David Camp

Oct 17, 2015

$86k for glossy propaganda, conveniently mailed out to arrive at the same time as ballots, and probably an election law violation. Pretty much representative of the rest of this stinky jail boondoggle - expensive waste of public funds, contempt for the law and for the intelligence of County voters, and utter devotion to the MOST expensive policy and seemingly deliberate lack of consideration to any lower cost more humane methods. These guys love to spend other peoples’ money and to increase taxes- like a bunch of tax-and-spend wastrels.



Keith D'Angelo

Oct 18, 2015

Ahimsa , non violence and forgiveness, come into contact with righteous indignation and the requirement for action.

I request voters give Mr. Louws and Elfo a time out to better reflect on the needs of the community they would like be given the opportunity to serve.  NOT THIS TIME, ITS A TIME OUT FOR ELFO AND LOUWS.


Phil Humphries

Oct 18, 2015

I emailed this to the PDC yesterday. I couldn’t find a reference to a formal procedure for a making a complaint.

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

I have concerns about a glossy promotional brochure from “Whatcom County” advocating for a ballot issue in Whatcom County that I received in the mail on Friday, October 16.

My primary concern is the mis-labeling of Proposition 2015-1, proposing the construction of a new jail, as Proposition 1. This occurs twice in the section “The Ballot Measure”. The first occurrence is in the line following the title.The bottom right paragraph (in a very large font) just above an illustration of the proposed new jail states “If Proposition #1 passes, the County and participating cities will build a replacement jail…” Clearly this is very confusing, unintentionally or not, and I believe that voting on either proposition will not truly reflect voters’ intentions.

Philip Humphries


Carol Follett

Oct 18, 2015

Thanks for this important information, Tip. Your comments on the site choice, “one of the darkest holes between Bellingham and Ferndale - immediately adjacent and downwind of an animal rendering plant, an industrial incinerator, a scrap yard running heavy diesel equipment, a municipal solid waste staging area, a garbage dump and an industrial smokestack…” points out the conscious or subconscious perspective of the incarcerated as refuse rather than people in need of change who may return to society.

It is in our best interests to keep the jail near the courthouse and in the public eye.


Jeffrey Bodé

Oct 18, 2015

Thanks, Tip, especially for mentioning that 17x22” color promo piece the County paid to design, print and mail.  What struck me at once after seeing it was how strained their legal rationale must be for them to feel justified spending our tax money on a campaign ad. 

J.J. Bodé, Esq., Ret.


Doug Starcher

Oct 19, 2015

Follow this link to file a complaint, I will be filing tonight or tomorrow.

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