Jail Fail

Rejected by voters, jail proposal gets legal challenge

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The jail tax got knocked down by voters, and a number of legal challenges may cause the initiative to struggle to its feet again.

Voters rejected Proposition 2017-6 by 57.7 percent in early returns Tuesday evening.

The measure would authorize a sales and use tax of two-tenths of one percent for public safety purposes, including costs associated with construction, maintenance and operation of a new $126 million jail complex north of Ferndale. The jail tax measure was similar in form to a proposal voters also rejected in 2015, with 51.4 percent against—and is dogged by similar concerns.

“The choice is whether to fund a criminal justice system that we want or to make the situation worse by not funding a facility to take people who have committed crimes in our communities,” County Council member Carl Weimer commented on the proposal. Weimer supplied the deciding vote to place the matter in front of voters.

“While Whatcom County is responsible for all of the felony convictions in the county, cities are responsible for lesser convictions, which is about 22 percent,” Weimer explained. “Without a new facility, cities—including Bellingham—will be left woefully short of options and will be forced to either not arrest people who commit crimes or to take people to Yakima or beyond before they have even had a trial.”

The 2017 jail tax offered better financial outcomes to Whatcom County’s cities than the previous incarnation, which convinced those local governments to sign on to a jail operations and financing agreement, and was intended to generate approximately $24.2 million a year in sales tax revenues to the county and its cities. County taxpayers are already paying $15.7 million yearly in sales taxes for criminal justice from a measure passed in 2004.

“We have been paying a 0.1 percent public safety tax since 2004. Since then the county has failed to do basic building maintenance at the current jail,” opponents of the jail proposal noted in their campaign statement. “We deserve a better plan, not the same plan we rejected two years ago.

“Like the tax we rejected in 2015, this proposal takes 100 percent of our public safety tax for 30 years,” opponents noted. “Simply adding beds won’t fix overcrowding. We need to fully fund treatment and diversion instead of warehousing the mentally ill and those who can’t afford bail.”

Whatcom Democrats strongly opposed the 2017 tax.

“The current facility is a risk to both staff and inmates, and the lack of space to separate inmates and provide treatment is inhumane,” Weimer said. “No amount of remodeling of our existing jail will provide enough space for programs, recreation and opportunities to our incarcerated population.”

While parameters of the debate have not changed since 2015, alleged irregularities in the 2017 campaign also mirror those from the earlier campaign, and they drew similar citizen challenges.

“Two years ago I filed a complaint against Whatcom County’s illegal jail mailer, which led to a fine against our County Executive,” noted Doug Starcher, who filed complaints along with a dozen other county residents in 2015. “I had hoped they’d work harder to earn the public trust and follow disclosure laws so it’s disappointing that this happened again.”

Starcher alleges that the political action committee in support of the jail, comprised of law enforcement professionals, has intentionally hid contributions and expenditures from the public.

“When I vote I want to make sure that I’m hearing from people I trust,” Starcher said. “As a voter I rely on the people asking for my vote to follow the laws. It’s a concern that two years later, they still haven’t gotten this right.”

Political activists in the Restorative Community Coalition, which opposes the jail proposal, have similarly requested that the Washington Attorney General appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate alleged election law violations by Whatcom County officials related to the jail sales tax proposal.

“There is mounting evidence that there may have been violations by Whatcom County Sheriff’s department employees committing campaign law violations,” Joy Gilfilen, president of the Restorative Community Coalition, said.

“The Restorative Community Coalition has requested full public disclosure from the Whatcom County Sheriff related to the Whatcom Jail Facebook page, which seems to be run by the aforementioned PAC together with several county employees who are strongly campaigning for the tax, possibly during work time. The Coalition is particularly seeking information regarding fraudulent tampering with a copyrighted image posted to the web, where Restorative Community Coalition supporters who were protesting the sales tax in 2015, were misrepresented as promoting the tax in 2017. 

“While many of the allegations were not addressed by the PDC in the earlier investigation, Louws was ultimately found to be in violation of state law, fined $1,000,  with $500 suspended provided there are no further violations for several years,” Gilfilen said. “Today these same three officials are now named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Whatcom County Superior Court by citizens alleging ongoing fraud and misrepresentation related to this mailer and ongoing campaign.”

In October of this year, community leader Rosalinda Guillen filed the lawsuit in Superior Court against Sheriff Bill Elfo, County Prosecutor David McEachran, and County Executive Jack Louws, based on their actions in the 2015 election year. The lawsuit alleges that Louws, Elfo, and McEachran violated state election law by using county resources for their reelections and publishing a biased and deceptive mailer to registered voters.

Among other allegations, the lawsuit outlines how officials may have reduced good time (also known as early release), imposed unrealistic bail obligations for poor people, booked extra inmates in order to support the campaign message of an “overcrowded” jail, and deliberately failed to maintain the downtown jail supporting the message that the jail was unsafe.

The lawsuit also alleges they used more than $45,000 of taxpayer funds for the campaign, formed a political action committee, and produced a mailer with public resources. The mailer promoted the ballot measure by including false and misleading statements and omitting information the public needed to make an informed decision about the ballot measure.

“Instead of diligently finding effective solutions to costly incarceration, they misused their power and position, used public funds, and instigated a shameful campaign to build a new jail which would exacerbate the present injustices in our community,” Guillen said.

“These elected leaders have caused many concerned community members to expend time, work and effort fighting against this relentless campaign to construct a new jail, the biggest capital expenditure in Whatcom County history,” Guillen said. “If elected officials succeed in their continued misleading campaign in 2017, they should also be made to pay damages for the many people and their families who are unjustly targeted through racial profiling, incarcerated and impacted in order to fulfill the increased capacity of the new jail.”

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