PDC Staff Suggests Gentle Wrist Pat for Campaign Violations

Washington state’s Public Disclosure Commission staff has completed a year-long investigation into how Whatcom County’s three top elected officials ran the campaign for last year’s jail bond. The local League of Women Voters and over a dozen individual people filed complaints following the election. The commission decided to group the complaints into one case.

On Friday, Dec 2, the commission staff released their recommendations and the five commissioners will make their decisions next Thursday, Dec 8. The commissioners could accept the staff proposal or decide there are further violations. Theoretically, they could decide there are no violations, but that is very unlikely in this case.

The complaint accuses our sheriff, county executive and prosecuting attorney of jointly running an illegal campaign to promote two of their own candidacies while deceiving voters about the costs and consequences of approving a $100 million jail facility - and paying much more in interest over 30 years. The complaint also accuses the three of illegal mailing procedures and violating state campaign laws.

PDC staff was initially against even investigating the charges, but the commissioners insisted. Staff determined that of the eight allegations, only two show violations of state law. One violation is that the mailer “…did not contain sufficient information about the cost…” of the new jail. The second violation determined that it was a “targeted mailing” intended to help win the election and not the informational brochure as the accused officials claimed.

As penalty, the staff recommends a $1,000 fine for Jack Louws, with $500 suspended, and no penalties for Sheriff Elfo or prosecutor McEachran.

The full 1,000 plus pages of the case, #1122, are available online at the PDC website. It could take a few minutes to download. You can also quickly review a very brief description of the case on the PDC website.

Last year, several writers on NWCitizen published articles strongly urging a NO vote on the jail bond because it was a deceptive and absurdly expensive project. Those of us who have studied the issue feel that Elfo and McEachran share fully in the deceptions and illegal actions along with Louws. You can check the articles by clicking on the category “Jail Planning.”

Of course, we will follow-up on this issue with a report on the commissioner’s final decision next week.

About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

Sam Crawford

Dec 04, 2016

I am disappointed (and more than a little disgusted) that there is now a recommendation by the campaign-oversight state agency (PDC) to penalize our County Executive as an individual. This as a result of his effort to fulfill his responsibility (a directive straight from the PDC) to inform the public on last year’s jail ballot measure prior to the election.

The fact is the pre-election mailer was balanced and very informative while very much in keeping with laws regarding the use of public resources in a local ballot measure. Add to that the attempt county officials made to consult with the Public Disclosure Commission prior to the publication of the flyer (and now the PDC says the “staff doesn’t recall”); and it’s my opinion this politically motivated ‘complaint’ by the measure’s opponents should have been tossed out long ago.

Shame on the bureaucrats of the Public Disclosure Commission. Your job is to determine malfeasance by candidates and others in elections. Instead you reinforce other recent PDC actions that are indicative of your agency’s potential agenda-driven malfeasance.


Wynne Lee

Dec 04, 2016

I’m sorry the PDC  didn’t also fine McEachran and Elfo, but apparently the PDC decided to go right to the top of the feeding chain, AKA the buck stops there. As it should, even though we all know that many CEOs, private as well as public, generally get off the Big Hook when something on their watch goes wrong.  Any leader worth her or his salt should be willing to take the blame as well as the glory.  It’ll be interesting to see what Louws does or says. 

I hope the next jail proposal that’s put before voters is handled better, more transparently and with true recognition of all the issues we despereately need to address ASAP.  I’m grateful to all those putting in many hours on this. All the sales tax needs to pass is a simple majority, just 50.1% of the vote.

The EMS levy passed with 60.1% (close, yes, but 60% support blows the failure of the jail sales tax levy at <50% out of the water).  And that strong majority supported was with zero support from Louws (and Elfo and McEachran) who feared that no one would support a jail levy after approving the EMS levy.  Indeed, Louws and most of the County Council expected the EMS levy to fail. Hmmm…. maybe not so good at taking the temperature of the majority of county voters?

Give citizens a truly decent jail proposal (one that’s completely honest about all costs, handles all the real needs, and doesn’t campaign for its proponents as well as the proposal) and I bet the levy will be approved handily. I’ll vote for that jail levy, should a good one show up on my ballot next year.


Joy Gilfilen

Dec 05, 2016

For a man we pay $158,823 a year to, I think a $500 fine is laughable. That is just a bit more than a seatbelt ticket to him.  

In his letter to the PDC, when Excecutive Louws admits failure, yet shuns full accountability and instead blames the PDC for not helping him be honest with the taxpayers - that is a manipulation of public trust.  

This is a situation where the Executive and his entire staff used poor judgement and failed.  They hired consultants and those consultants failed too.   They had the Prosecutor and an entire legal team advising him.  And the Sheriff.  They said so in testimony.  They worked for days on this they told the Council.  And they failed too.   We have paid millions of dollars in consulting fees for them to fail again and again and again.  Why? 

The fact is:  The taxpayers did not get full disclosure of facts.  We still are not getting it.  We get political gamesmanship.  There still is no true Needs Assessment and cost benefit analysis that considers any alternative to building a massive alligator of a debt obligation. Sorry, they say.  Blame the PDC.

We pay this County Executive well.  We pay him to manage our taxpayers business affairs honorably,  We give him our trust to play it square. This County Executive is legally and constitutionally responsible for managing  our taxpayers money.   We hired him by electing him.  This is not a fun and games story.  (Example:  He controls almost $200 million dollars a year of our bills - the budget says it is $181, 095,348 a year just in projected expenses for 2016.)  

In this case, the Executive, the Sheriff and the Prosecutor (and their staffs) were asking us to give them permission to tax us more.  They wanted to gain control over another $100 million dollars of taxpayers income and benefits.  They wanted the right to expand the jail industry and increase the cash flow and the debt liabilities to build a regional jail.   A jail that was not even approved.  And without adequate facts, Jack?  Really? 

This Executive was asking the taxpayers to go in debt forever - to be obligated forever to pay for this.   Taxpayers deserve information. Not propaganda.  We deserve facts.  We deserve full disclosure.  We do not deserve a oolitical campaign ad.  

In the past, we taxpayers just trusted.  We trusted our elected officials to be honorable with three prior tax raises.  We asked them to solve the problems, and give us the facts.  They failed to disclose.  

Stockholders in a corporation would demand information before they put out another $100 million to incur a forever debt.  Why should the Executive not be held to a similar standard?  We, the people, are in effect the stockholders in this County Corporation, like it or not. Taxpayers are the stakeholders who will be left holding the bag for ever to pay for the errors in judgement.  Our children will be obligated forever to pay for an expensive jail industry expansion project that has virtually no controls by the people afterwards.  We will pay long after this Executive retires.   

I expect more from a man who is in charge of our communities bills and our forever debt.  This County Executive violates our trust, and then blames the PDC?  I have a real problem with that. 


Tip Johnson

Dec 05, 2016


In 2011, a citizen task force tried to discover the County’s rational basis for a big, flat, rural jail.  They found themselves ignored at every turn.  They managed to get an independent consultant’s review.  Jay Farbstein’s highly competent report, too, was ignored.

By 2013, the county’s game had become obvious enough that even the mild mannered Whatcom Watch published an article about the ‘cloak of secrecy’ under which this jail proposal emerged.

It had become apparent to most that the County wants to develop a regional corrections center regardless of whether it would bankrupt the county or forever hamstring other emergency services - and despite the already evident failure of private prison industry expansion.

One has only to search the term ‘Whatcom County jail’ on this site to find many articles about the many problems with the jail plan the county seems intent on achieving.  At every turn they have suppressed citizen concerns, ignored more effective alternatives, exaggerated need and distorted the facts.

For example, the County’s rationale for putting the jail in a remote location is based on a one and a half page analysis citing federal documents that, if read, suggest the opposite - that the best place is next to the courthouse.

The irony at times become excruciating.  The Sheriff whined that he could not get inmates the fresh air they are due under the law.  So he proposes putting them in one of the dirtiest little corners of Whatcom County - next to a rendering plant, a railroad, downwind of nearly continuously operating heavy diesel equipment, an asphalt plant smokestack and most of Whatcom County’s garbage fermenting in containers awaiting transport.

They rushed a purchase of land in this location, on a toxic ash pit, for five times the average value of properties surrounding the site, more than twice that of the larger, flatter property across the road.  But then, it is right near near the two secret entrances to the airport and Homeland Security - where Louws made a killing selling them his land. Plus, covering the site with a big, flat jail could achieve closure for the toxic ash beneath, a big plus for potentially liable parties, like Recomp and Wilder.

Anyone can go read the documents supposedly underlying the jail planning process.

If, after reading through them, it doesn’t make sense, then read this:

The PDC is letting everyone off as lightly as possible.  But it is not their job to determine if County government is feeding its citizens hooey or planning to hijack the budget in perpetuity.  That’s a job for citizens, and the job of siting and planning an appropriate jail is far from over.


Wynne Lee

Dec 06, 2016

You have to use Sam’s Facebook link to see Louws’ statement. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154870995649701&set=a.44502724700.52076.820649700&type=3

Hope some of you can read it, or that Sam will copy and paste it here so that non-FB users can see Louws’ own words. I found it very instructive.

IMO what Jack wrote shows he accepts zero personal responsibility for the fiasco, which most of us know played a role in the jail sales tax levy failing at the 50% level. Yes, Jack’s failure to pay serious attention to the rules of election materials (or relying on poor legal advice from our Great Prosecuting Attorney) is himself partly to blame for the jail levy not passing. Clearly he still doesn’t get it. Sigh.

Nor do I see in what Jack wrote the slightest understanding,, even in hindsight, of how very, very, very easy it would have been to avoid the problems then or avoid them in the future. All that was needed was to (1) tell the whole financial story, and (2) for goodness sake, don’t make it even implicitly also a campaign flyer if you’re up for election!  Louws like Sam complains about the PDC, about lack of funds, about Louws’ personal suffering, etc.  Definitely passing the buck here, there and everywhere but to his own desk.  His conclusion? He’ll never again participate in providing informational materials to citizens about any election issue, it’s just too much doggone much trouble :-(

That’s not good leadership.  I voted for Louws first time around, with considerable hope in his abilities. I don’t remember what I did next time; I waffled at lot before voting. I won’t vote for him again, although I think he has done a good job on some fronts.




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