The Gristle

In a Bind
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IN A BIND: “You break it, you own it” is an adage familiar to most people; and it was always understood that the next solutions to Whatcom County’s failed jail initiative would have to come from the communities most opposed to the $120 million sales tax proposal for a new justice center in Ferndale. The County Executive—who’d invested quite a bit of political capital in placing the initiative on the ballot last November, only to see it crater—had made it clear the next leadership steps would have to come from a County Council deeply ambivalent about the original proposal from his office.

County Council members understood this as well, and immediately set to work to draw up a joint statement of principles and goals by an ad hoc committee of Whatcom County Council, Bellingham City Council, and Lummi Indian Business Council members—the entities that expressed the greatest doubts about the proposed plan to construct the jail and (in the case of Bellingham) the communities where the ballot measure failed most miserably at the polls.

Their early effort drew a rebuke from Sheriff Bill Elfo, who noted in an alarmed email to the administrators of all Whatcom jurisdictions that, “I was not contacted in any way regarding the concepts included in the document (nor was the County Executive),” he wrote, expressing his concerns about a lack of transparency and being locked out of a process in which he is intimately involved and has authority. Elfo characterized many of the assumptions in the statement as “inaccurate.”

County Council members, perhaps realizing they’d misstepped, retooled their statement as coming directly from them and requesting—by resolution introduced this week—the municipalities and tribes formally join their efforts to craft planing principles for the county’s criminal justice and behavioral health services. Their statement, also introduced this week, stands much as it was originally conceived.

The statement lays out a dozen principles moving forward—focused on responsible stewardship of public funds, ensuring public safety and providing adequate countywide behavioral health services.  At the heart of their statement is a call for a data-driven, holistic approach to criminal justice policy.

“We desire to create transparency in the planning process, not just more process,” Council members expressed in their proposed statement. “We want to move beyond a narrow discussion of current jail conditions, to a more fruitful discussion of desired outcomes and priorities. We believe decisions must be based on data and evidence, and that crucial information has been lacking. We also want to start new conversations with judicial leaders and court officials, to understand procedural and philosophical reforms that might be needed, but that are beyond legislative authority. Bail, probation, and incarceration policies and practices have been subject to successful reforms elsewhere, and could be right for Whatcom County,” they noted.

A necessary first step to a clean approach is to toss out the tainted work of earlier jail planning consultants and hire instead a new criminal justice planner. Council’s statement calls for such a planner to study “financial commitments, jail location and size, diversion programs, and bail and prosecution reforms [that] must be examined and reported on by an established, impartial expert.”

While County Executive Jack Louws acknowledged the statement of principles, his administration and that of the Sheriff must continue to address the crowded and decayed condition of the current jail in real time. Louws detailed these concerns in a memo to Council last week that outlined specific capital facilities outlays for the existing jail and minimum security work center.

“With a deteriorating building that has constant overcrowding issues and lacks adequate space for mental health and medical space, there are several infrastructure issues that require action,” Louws noted. “The Sheriff and I are working to develop thorough action plans that will allow us to address these critical issues until the existing jail is replaced.

“Since it is unlikely that the existing jail will be replaced in the next five to six years, I have requested an assessment of of the critical deficiencies of our jail infrastructure,” he wrote.

The executive included cost estimates of infrastructure improvements to the existing jail of $6.25 million and improvements to the work center of approximately $4 million. The improvements are primarily to plumbing, electrical and ducting of the aging main jail, and added security upgrades in the secondary facility to permit uses beyond those originally imagined for the work center.

The total is insignificant in comparison to the $120 million for a new justice center as originally proposed, but it is still a stretch for the county budget. And how long can patches and duct tape hold together, Council members asked.

“We’re in a bind,” Louws admitted. “We’re in an extremely tight bind. We don’t have $10 million lying around to repair the existing facilities, and we’re in an environment where construction costs are increasing at—to put a reasonable estimate on it—4 percent every year. Every minute we fail to move forward is a minute we’re moving backward.”

Council had an answer:

“We would like to start where we agree,” policymakers noted in the preamble to their statement this week, “and work to create behavioral health and criminal justice systems that reflect community values. We believe our communities are not divided on the commitment to public safety, justice, fiscal accountability, fair treatment, harm reduction, healing, and prevention as public priorities.”

It’s as good of a place as any to start.

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Past Columns

February 3, 2016

FICTIONS IN COLLISION: Whatcom County Council held a long and crowded, rancorous session on the update of the county’s Comprehensive Plan last week. The Comp Plan update is intended to… more »

January 27, 2016

‘YOU HAD ONE JOB’: Two weeks into their short 2016 session, and the Washington State Legislature is already bogged down. The 60-day session is ordinarily designed for adjustments to the… more »

January 20, 2016

A MATTER OF CONVICTION: Problems with the jail did not end when voters rejected a proposal to construct a new justice facility in November; in fact, the problems are just… more »

January 13, 2016

GO ASK ALICE: A groundbreaking study released this week finds that nearly one in three households in the Pacific Northwest struggles to afford basic standards of living, a remarkable commentary… more »

January 6, 2016

ALL CHARGED UP, NO GAS: A new year begins, and with it the oaths of office and the swearing ceremonies of new public officials elected last November. Among these, the… more »

December 30, 2015

AULD ACQUAINTANCE FORGOT: Will 2016 be the year Whatcom County finally achieves compliance with the Growth Management Act, enacted a quarter of a century ago? Perhaps; but it’s doubtful.

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December 23, 2015

COAL IN YOUR STOCKING: ’Tis the season for retail sales. Following that, the weakened Canadian dollar coupled with the closure of a major industry and its associated payroll could send… more »

December 16, 2015

Farewell: At the end of their legislative year, city and county councils took time to bid farewell to extraordinary departing members with whom they’ve collaborated and (at times, and with… more »

December 9, 2015

HOLDING PATTERNS: Fallout continues from the county’s calamitous failure to pass a funding package for additional corrections capacity. A 0.2 percent sales and use tax to construct a new facility… more »

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