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The Mysterious State of the Whatcom County Jail

By On
• In Bellingham,

This election, featuring a huge jail tax proposition, has seen much talk about the “dilapidated” jail that is “literally falling apart.” In a questionable jail mailer Sheriff Elfo cites, “severe and unsustainable conditions within the jail that jeopardize staff, visitors and inmates.”

This begs the obvious: Why has the jail not been fixed after taxpayers approved a sales tax to do so? According to a letter from Elfo to County Executive Jack Louws on April 22, 2015, Elfo says, “it would be imprudent to invest major capital to remodel and continue utilizing a facility” described as “inadequate, failing and dangerous.” That makes their 2004 jail tax campaign look like a bait and switch. And when was that decision made? By whom? Does Elfo really have the authority to overturn the electorate’s intentions?

Naturally, I got to wondering what has been done to maintain or improve the jail with the millions collected from the first jail tax. Shouldn’t we get to know how they used the money before approving another boatload of our hard-earned funds? In the jail mailer, Elfo offers only this: “Over time, conditions have grown increasingly worse.”

That's not much of an explanation, more of an admission, really, but there is a simple answer: They’re just not saying.

On September 21st, I submitted this public disclosure request:

From: Tip Johnson
Date: Mon, 21 Sep 2015 14:42:09 -0700
To: PublicRecordsOfficer <PublicRecordsOfficer@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Subject: Jail Building repair estimates, structural evaluations, known issues

Hello Mark,

Another request. There has been a lot of talk about problems with the jail, and anecdotes about someone removing a bearing wall in the basement. I would like to inspect any documents related to structural reports, repair or renovation cost estimates, and costs and descriptions of remedial work that has been done to keep it going. Thank you,

Tip Johnson

Three days into the five day window for response, I receive the following:

From: PublicRecordsOfficer <PublicRecordsOfficer@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Date: Thu, 24 Sep 2015 20:38:25 +0000
To: Tip Johnson
Subject: RE: Jail Building repair estimates, structural evaluations, known issues

Tip,

Whatcom County received your request for public records on September 21, 2015. It was assigned tracking number 2015-178 and was forwarded to the Facilities Management Division where we reasonably expected any responsive records to be found.

The work you reference pre-dates anyone currently employed at Whatcom County. Facilities Manager Michael Russell tells me that he is not aware of any documentation of the work on the wall, but believes there may be documentation of the effort to remediate the effects of the previous work. He is willingly to talk with you about what he knows about the issue.

We estimate that it could take up to a month to dig through the archives in an attempt to locate any responsive documents.

Should you wish to speak with the Facilities Manager, please call Facilities
at 360-778-5360 and ask for Mike.

Mark Burnfield, CPRO
Public Records Officer

So, with the election season rapidly unwinding, I am expecting to wait at least a month for information on this core issue? Nobody knows anything? Really? What’s going on down there? More than a month later, this arrives:

From: PublicRecordsOfficer <PublicRecordsOfficer@co.whatcom.wa.us>
Date: Mon, 26 Oct 2015 16:58:50 +0000
To: Tip Johnson <tip@skookum.us>
Subject: Request 2015-178 - update

Tip,

After talking with a couple of people at Facilities this is what I have learned. The work on the jail in the past few years has been performed by Sierra Detention Systems. Sierra did subcontract with an engineer to look at the building as part of their project and the engineer made recommendations that included work on the openings that had been made in the basement. The project Sierra was hired to do has not been closed out and all of the records are still in the possession of the contractor. We cannot provide a time estimate of when the County will have access to said records.

How do you wish to proceed?

Mark Burnfield, CPRO
Public Records Officer

Well, it should be obvious by now that they’re just not going to say what’s been done and no one is going to be able to check up on one of their key campaign claims, much less their managerial competence, before the election is long over.

As an aside, many will have noted the sheriff’s repeated claim that a downtown jail was never considered in part because of a county ordinance that prohibits correctional facilities within a mile of public or private schools. In the same letter to Louws (above), Elfo admits that “the ordinance only has applicability in unincorporated Whatcom County.” So the underlying reason consideration of “an urban site…was not performed” boils down to the apparent fact that they just want to build a big, flat remote jail far from public scrutiny, regardless of whether it bankrupts the county.

It has all the hallmarks of a plan to bilk taxpayers for an oversized jail that will need to be sold to private operators. This, more than anything else explains the extremely odd location and the administration's playing fast and loose with the siting and design guidelines of the National Institute of Corrections and the Department of Justice. Private jailers aren't going to want the public's eyes scrutinizing their operations. I can sense some golden corporate parachutes in the offing - but only debt for the taxpayers.

Brilliant!

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

Barbara Perry

Oct 26, 2015

FYI Tip,

Because yours and David’s and John’s comments all pointed out the unethical if not illegal actions of the county, I did write to the WA Attorney General.  As I expected, the following is the reply I got from his office and my response:

ATG MI COR Constituent Mail

Oct 23 (3 days ago)

to me
Sent via E-Mail

October 23, 2015

1115 Lenora
Bellingham WA 98225

Dear Ms. Perry:

On behalf of Attorney General Bob Ferguson, thank you for your recent email.  I am a Senior Assistant Attorney General and Chief of the Corrections Division, and I have been asked to respond to your inquiry on the Attorney General’s behalf.

I understand from your letter that you have concerns about land use decisions made by Whatcom County officials concerning county jail property.  As you may not know, the Attorney General’s Office serves as legal counsel to state agencies and officials.  We do not have authority over local government matters, nor do we have the ability to provide legal advice or analysis for private citizens.

I can best assist you by suggesting that you follow up with Whatcom County officials regarding your concerns.  You might start with Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney David McEachran, His address and telephone number are: 311 Grand Avenue, Suite 201, Bellingham, WA 98225, 360-676-6784.

I regret that I cannot be of further assistance at this time, but trust you will understand the position of this office under the law.
Sincerely,
TIM LANG
Senior Assistant Attorney General

Barbara Perry

Oct 23 (3 days ago)

to ATG
Since Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney David McEachran, Sheriff Elpho and Louws all appear to be working in sink your suggestion to get McEachran to investigate is an irony. Please do as I suggested and read NW Citizen’s articles about the jail and the three of them acted if not illegally, then unethically.  The articles are by Tip Johnson, David Camp, and John Servais.  They, as investigative reporters are better at policing elected officials more than your office.  If you refuse to investigate, please tell me who investigates corrupt officials when they act together?  Barbara Perry

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Walter Haugen

Oct 27, 2015

I feel for you Barbara. When I sent a letter to the AG complaining about Ferndale City Councilman Paul Ingram threatening to shoot Art Rojsza in the head at an executive session in 2012, I got the same do-nothing form letter.

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Junga Subedar

Oct 29, 2015

If the Attorney General and Whatcom County Prosecutor does not take action after 45 days and 10 days notice to them of your intent to file, an individual may file in the courts.  (RCW 42.17A.765).  After this period and notice to them, you may take the next legal step.

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