About Tip Johnson

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 on the Bellingham City Council and has worked on many community boards and committees. He travelled with the Federal Transit Administration and Department of Commerce on mass transit trade missions in SE Asia and Africa before settling down to focus on keeping public interests at the fore of local government and the course of growth and development.

By: Tip Johnson (180)

Jail Tax: Third Time’s a Charm?

Council Rebukes Justice Advocates and Voters

Council Rebukes Justice Advocates and Voters

The County Council has started their third attempt to pass the fourth tax since 1998 earmarked for repair or replacement of our jail - effort seven for four taxes. Sheriff Elfo’s plan for a oversized, rural, regional detention center already failed twice at the polls. On January 14th, they awkwardly started the third attempt by essentially snubbing both dedicated activists and 30% of the voters in the last Sheriff’s election.

Since 1998, three taxes have been added and at least $10 million spent on multiple planning efforts and property acquisition for a new jail. A work release center was built but the jail has not been replaced or repaired. Instead, it has been systematically run down to a condition the County admits is inhumane.

After the second failed vote, the County reversed its long policy of delaying repairs on the jail and decided to spend some money. A $4.3 million dollar contract was issued to “repair or replace” 161 doors. Apparently, only two doors are actually being replaced. One estimate suggests all could be replaced for under $2 million - if they even need it. One security specialist familiar with the doors, on hearing the Sheriff’s complaints, advised that probably the doors just needed adjustment, or there might be a software glitch.

Three taxes resulting in a yet more inhumane jail, an over-valued property purchase, and bloated repair contracts contribute to citizens’ distrust of the County when it comes to spending their jail tax dollars. The Council acknowledges this general distrust but touts a renewed commitment to transparency and public engagement. However, they appear to be following the same predetermined conclusion toward a new, rural jail and seem to have resolved to proceed by shutting out major critics.

Joy Gilfilen was one of three to apply for a position on the new jail Stakeholders Advisory Committee (Stakeholder Advisory Committee for Public Health, Safety and Justice Facility Needs Assessment). Most of the positions are reserved for industry professionals but no one stepped up to apply. Only one position is earmarked for a “criminal justice advocate” and three well known involved citizens applied - two of whom already serve on the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF). The Stakeholders group will work with the County and its consultant, HOK, to help provide community direction and feedback during the needs assessment and conceptual design.

Joy has worked for more than ten years sorting through problems with our incarceration industry, hosting meetings, running discussions and panels, organizing and hosting conferences, running the Local Justice Reform Now political action committee, filing briefs, papers and testimony challenging officials on citizens’ behalf. Her work in restorative justice was instrumental in the defeat of the last two ballot measures for a new jail. Out of frustration and despite lacking some basic law enforcement qualifications, she ran for Sheriff against the now reelected incumbent, Bill Elfo, and surprisingly pulled in more than 30% of the vote.

The Council did not accept Gilfilen’s application and moved to extend the application deadline. Council’s action rebukes not only Joy’s work, but more than 25,000 voters who supported her ideas. Maybe these citizens just don’t understand?

The issue was birthed by Tyler Byrd in the afternoon Committee meeting (about 2:25) when he wonders if only three applicants indicate a County failure to “get the word out”. Council President Buchanan immediately agrees and suggests extending the deadline a couple weeks. Not much more is said and the committee goes on to ponder the mechanics of working with the consultant to achieve their aim - urgently passing another tax increase for a new jail.

Not long into the evening meeting the applications come up again, but this time with more clarity. Buchanan brings it up as something newly seated member Ben Elenbaas had asked him about. Byrd jumps in saying “we know where (the applicants) stand”, that it’s “important (to) get fresh voices”, to engage “others we haven’t heard from yet” and “appoint people…that haven’t served in the past”. Joy hasn’t officially ‘served’ in the past. Shutting her out started long ago. The other applicants have. Newly seated member Kershner concurred saying, “we can’t just keep hearing from the same people”, suggesting it could hurt the County’s chance at passing a funding measure in November. I guess they don’t want folks that are already up to speed?

The rest of the meeting was also very instructive.

Sheriff Elfo reiterates his assertion that, “Since 1996 multiple…engineers, fire safety professionals, and the National Institute of Corrections have identified compelling life safety, security, liability and other issues…within the downtown jail. All recommended replacing the facility,” and, “Despite the millions of dollars in maintenance and repair…the facility continues to fail in terms of structure…,” and further complains about transporting prisoners, citing problems including separation from support systems, attorneys, transportation expenses and safety issues related to transport - precisely what critics complained Elfo’s twice-failed plan for a big rural regional detention center would accomplish!

Already familiar with this gruel, the Council was quick to agree. Byrd suggests urgency because, “the building might cave in”. Browne parrots that the “existing facility is failing”. Elenbaas adds “We can all agree there is a need”, and Kershner takes it a step further, possibly backward, with the idea that “Our community is really is suffering from the lack of having an adequate community justice center”. Elenbaas appeared ready to return to the Sheriff’s twice-rejected plan, having previously worried about starting from scratch instead of picking up “where we left off”.

I personally hope a needs assessment will bother to locate and review the documents the Sheriff cites. I have failed to find them. My information is that the building is founded on bedrock and constructed with pre-stressed concrete decks capable of supporting two additional stories - possibly the safest, most robust structure in the downtown core. I do not dispute that the jail has been neglected, repairs badly managed or that better designs are possible. Rightly, these should all be rich veins to mine in assessing our needs and capabilities. But if the failing building story is just more of the Sheriff’s hooey, the existing jail will be the best and least expensive place to add space - if such needs are identified. We don’t need a new “justice center”. We already have one downtown, including the courthouse. Improvements may be warranted but we should at all costs avoid moving it out to an undeveloped rural area.

Council shows less interest in this core, fundamental issue. They want to get a measure on the ballot. They wonder if an earlier advisory vote would be prudent. They wonder whether this November, a presidential election, is the right timing. Could it be delayed until next year? Buchanan cautions that delay could cause “disastrous” conflicts with other upcoming school and EMS levies. They wonder how long building a new jail will take. They are assured that they will have recommendations for size, location and cost before the vote. The kicker is that the consultant’s Final Report is due after the measure is published on the ballot. Byrd suggests changing the name of that report to avoid any confusion.

Sidhu wants to rein things in. He says folks want alternatives, preferring treatment to incarceration. He cites the Vera Institute recommendations, the defeat of the measures, and two year’s work by the new task force that has “…culminated in a new plan, uh, that, and, we, this is the first step, the first step is needs assessment”. He says that whereas before it was about the size and location, now it will be about how we can change our practices, and “then look at the bricks and mortar”. He says he had a meeting and “they brought me up to speed on this initiative”

The bottom line is that if we refuse to engage our most active critics, and continue to ignore issues that have not yet been adequately addressed, we will never arrive at a realistic needs assessment and taxpayers will never be able to trust that their fourth jail tax increase will go anywhere but down the same bureaucratic rabbit hole as the last three. We could end up funding a so-called “Justice Center” that is really more of a rural real estate scam and about regional detention instead of community correctional needs.

Joy Gilfilen has earned her seat on the stakeholders committee. If the County took a longer view, they would see that it’s ultimately to their advantage. If they can get a proposal past Joy, they can likely get the votes to pass the measure.

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 [...]

Lisa E. Papp

Jan 25, 2020

Thank you for this report, Tip. It is very frustrating and upsetting to hear that the Council did not accept Joy’s application for the jail Stakeholder’s Advisory Committee even though she is probably the most experienced and knowledgeable local citizen on criminal justice reform.

If possible, can you please list all of the names, email adresses, and/or any other contact info below so it is easy for me and other citizens to submit our comments or complaints to the appropriate parties; Council members, chair of the Stakeholder’s Advisory Committee, County Executive, etc.?  Also, what is the newly-extended application deadline date? Thank you.

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