Whatcom County Rejects Opportunity to be a Leader in Criminal Justice Reform
The 2000 Whatcom County Law & Justice Council (LJC) Plan offered a way to address jail conditions with a remodel of the existing jail, to promote citizen inclusion in criminal justice issues, and to be a leader in criminal justice reform. Instead, the only LJC recommendation that the County moved swiftly to implement, was to create an “enhanced” LJC . On June 27, 2000 (Resolution 2000-034), the County Council followed a recommendation from the LJC for “an enhanced Law and Justice Council” (ELJC), and by resolution added designated officials and various other stakeholders in the Whatcom County criminal justice system—increasing the headcount on the ELJC to 55 (with 6 vacancies—mainly citizens—as of the Council’s 2008 Whatcom County Law & Justice Plan Update).
The ELJC now included the following members:
(Composition including committees at the time of the 2008 Plan update)
Law & Justice Council Chair - Richard Maneval
Law & Justice Council Vice Chair - Dave McEachran
Law & Justice Council Secretary - Marge Laidlaw
Diversion and Re-Entry Committee Chair - Gary Williams
Facilities Committee Chair - Wendy Jones
Juvenile Justice Committee Chair - Dave Reynolds
Law Enforcement Committee Chair - Bill Elfo
Management Information Systems Committee Chair - Kathy Walker
County Executive - Pete Kremen
Public Defender - Jon Komorowski
Police Chiefs Representative - Erik Ramstead
Community Representative - Robert Gibb
Community Representative - Doug Knudsen
Community Representative - Thomas Schreiber
Whatcom County Sheriff - Bill Elfo*
Police Chief City of Bellingham - Todd Ramsay
Representative of Municipal Police Chiefs - Erik Ramstead
Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorne - Dave McEachran
Whatcom County Public Defende - Jon Komorowski
Representative of Municipal Prosecutors - Joan Hoisington
Representative of Municipal Legislative Authorities - Vacant
Whatcom County Superior Court Admin/Clerk - N.F. Jackson
Whatcom County District Court Administrator - Bruce Van Glubt
Representative of Municipal Courts - Linda Storck
Whatcom County Jail Administrator - Wendy Jones
Whatcom County Juvenile Court Administrator - Dave Reynolds
Secretary of State Dept. of Corrections Designee - Tina Miller
Presiding Superior Court Judge Designee - Charles Snyder
Presiding District Court Judge - Matthew Elich
Whatcom County Medical Examiner - Gary Goldfogel
Whatcom County Director of Admin Services - Dewey Desler
*(Elfo was first assigned to the ELJC in 2000 while working as director of the Blaine Department of Public Safety, having just moved here from Pompano Beach, Florida)
Whatcom County Executive - Pete Kremen
Mayor City of Bellingham - Dan Pike
Mayor City of Blaine - Mike Myers
Mayor City of Everson - Jaleen Pratt
Mayor City of Ferndale - Gary Jensen
Mayor City of Lynden - Jack Louws
Mayor City of Nooksack - James Ackerman
Mayor City of Sumas - Robert Bromley
Citizen, Whatcom County Executive - Ron Peterson, Robert Gibb, Joe Bartek
Citizen, Mayor City of Bellingham - Kathy Walker, Steve Paus, Philip Buri
Citizen, Whatcom County Council - Thomas Schreiber
Citizen, Bellingham City Council - Richard Maneval
Citizen, Blaine City Council - Mike Haslip
Citizen, Everson City Council - Marge Laidlaw
Citizen, Ferndale City Council - Vacant
Citizen, Lynden City Council - Doug Knudsen
Citizen, Nooksack City Council - Vacant
Citizen, Sumas City Council - Vacant
Citizen, Lummi Nation - Vacant
Citizen, Nooksack Indian Tribe - Vacant
Treatment provider, County Executive - Karen Burke, Rod Elin, Andy Byrne, Moonwater, Gary Williams
Tribal Representative, Lummi Council Chairperson - Gary James
Tribal Representative, Nooksack Tribal Chairman - Vacant
The new ELJC was light on citizen members, and stacked with (even more) full-time and busy County officials and employees. Moving this group forward would prove to be logistically challenging. In fact, the ELJC did not begin to update the original 2000 LJC Plan until 2006, again with assistance from the Northwest Regional Council. By then, Bill Elfo had been Whatcom County’s Sheriff for three (3) years. The “updated” report was released on May 14, 2008, as the Whatcom County Law & Justice Plan 2008 Plan Update.
There should have been some continuity between the original 2000 LJC Plan and the 2008 Update, but the ELJC presented (at the end of its update) only the most cursory progress report on recommendations made by the first LJC report in 2000.
With respect to the recommendation to hire a full time Justice Planner/Coordinator, the ELJC had this to say in its report:
The County contracted with the Northwest Regional Council to provide logistical support for the Law & Justice Council to staff and facilitate meetings. The County also hired a planner/coordinator for 2002, but budget cuts for 2003 eliminated the funding. Lacking a planner/coordinator, the Council has not collected performance data to evaluate programs and initiatives as recommended by the plan.
[2008 ELJC Plan Update, p. 38.]
With respect to expansion of secure Adult Jail Facilities, the ELJC now stated:
In late 2003 the County developed a plan to build a medium security community corrections center on six acres in the Bakerview Spur area of Bellingham. State law allowed the County to propose an increase in the sales tax by 1/10 of 1% to finance construction and operation of corrections facilities. A citizens committee, “People for a Safer Community,” campaigned successfully. Voters approved the tax increase in November 2004. The new Jail Work Center, built on time and within budget, opened in November 2006. It provides 150 male and female beds, a staging area for expanded alternative to jail work programs, kitchen and laundry facilities, and a co-located 14-bed mental health and substance abuse Behavioral Health Triage Center operated by the County Health Department.
[2008 ELJC Plan Update, p. 40.]
First, the ELJC does not address the original 1997 increase in the sales tax approved by Whatcom County voters, and how/where these funds were used. Second, the citizens committee, “People for a Safer Community,” was made up of supporters and employees of the Sheriff, who pushed for an increase in the jail sales tax (again) to build a new jail. Third, the ELJC reportedly did not work well together (partly because its numbers made it unwieldy), and there was no consensus (and much disagreement) on much of what appears in the 2008 Plan Update.
By 2008, the new minimum-security Jail Work Center on Division Street was completed, and the ELJC did an about-face on the original high priority recommendation to remodel the main jail. Specifically, the 2008 Plan update states that “[t]he Law & Justice Council puts building a new main jail as soon as possible as its highest priority recommendation…” In the new plan, the construction (rather than remodel) of a new main jail became the “number one priority recommendation,” although the ELJC did reference the “nationwide effort to reduce overreliance on incarceration…”
The County did not follow the original 2000 LJC recommendation to hire (and presumably retain) a full time criminal justice planner/coordinator, and instead relied upon the NRC (in 2006) to conduct “22 meetings involving 37 law and justice officials, including judges, law enforcement officers, and administrators in county, city and tribal governments.” The recommendations in the 2008 Plan Update were then “shaped by Law & Council committee chairs, county criminal justice departments, and Executive Committee members in a series of meetings in early 2007.”
The final 2008 ELJC Plan Update emphasizes two goals: (1) Acquire new main jail site; and (2) build a new main jail and Sheriff’s offices.
The 2008 Plan Update calls for the purchase of a new main jail site of at least 50 Acres. It suggests a first phase of development to include 800 to 1000 beds, with “full spectrum security from minimum to maximum,” with the ability to expand to 2000 beds, if necessary. [2008 Plan Update, p. 13]. The cost was estimated at between $56 million and $150 million.
Importantly, the 2008 Plan Update recognized that “[t]he site selection process includes numerous time consuming steps that are mandated by law. The county intends “to proceed with careful deliberation to forestall the ability of opponents of any particular site to block the project through legal action.” That calculated strategy runs counter to the 2000 LJC Plan recommendation for citizen inclusion in the process to ensure public “buy-in.” Even before completion of the 2008 Plan Update, the County had already approved $812,166.00 worth of contracts with HDR Engineering for a “Site Selection Process for Whatcom County Adult Corrections Facilities and Sheriff’s Headquarters Project,” (Whatcom County Contract Nos. 200711045; 200711045-1; 200711045-2; 200712035; 200804013-1).
By the time the 2008 Plan Update was received by the County Council in 2008, it appears the new Jail Train was running full speed ahead on the assumption that:
(1) Whatcom County needed a new Jail with capacity up to 2000 beds,
(2) On a 50-acre property yet to be identified and acquired,
(3) With new Sheriff’s Headquarters, and
(4) At a cost of between $50 million and $150 million.
The 2000 and 2008 ]reports cannot be reconciled. By 2008, the recommendation to remodel the main Jail had been rejected, and the site selection for a new jail had been predetermined (because of the recommendation for a 50-acre site). Without explicitly stating it, the 2008 ELJC Plan’s requirement for a 50-acres jail site effectively ruled out any new jail location in the County seat or in downtown Bellingham.
Most troubling is how the 2008 Plan Update recommendations “put the cart before the horse.” There is still no professional justice planner (recommended in 2000), jail needs assessment for a remodel or new construction, development of a realistic budget, or analysis of funding options.
On December 9, 2008, in its regular County Council session, the Council refused to approve the 2008 Plan Update submitted to the County by the ELJC. The Council’s stated objections were that:
(1) The plan had no set realistic priorities (every recommendation was designated “high priority”),
(2) The ELJC failed to put forth “obtainable objectives”, and
(3) There was no funding for the recommendations in the report, which were more of a “wish list,” than a realistically prioritized list of achievable goals (Regular Whatcom County Council meeting, December 9, 2008). The ELJC was thereafter disbanded, and to date, the County has not reconstituted the state-mandated LJC.
The next segments of the “Illusion of Inclusion” will address the work of even more appointed Panels, Committees, Councils, Task Forces and County-paid consultants. It will demonstrate how the County’s failure to meaningfully engage the citizens of Whatcom County derailed approval of Proposition 2015-1 in November 2015. The jail “plan,” to be funded by the Proposition was developed (and continues to be steered in one direction) by a few elected County Officials—without “buy-in” by the citizens of Whatcom County—who are ultimately responsible to pay for and live with the consequences.
Part two will also widen the focus to demonstrate how the County:
(1) Hand-picked consultants (without adequate requests for proposals and a credible bidding process), and
(2) Provided those consultants with the County’s own criteria for site selection and scope of the new facility, which created…
(3) Biased reports and yet another illusion, that is, that citizen taxpayers have only one option: To fund a large-scale Jail and Sheriff’s Headquarters Project—promoted by the Sheriff, the Prosecuting Attorney and County Executive—who back up the need for this project with County-selected and highly-compensated consultants—who themselves base their conclusions on criteria provided by the Sheriff and County Executive.