After the excitement of the election, I was ready for some relaxation. So I decided to show up for a Whatcom County Council committee meeting (a well-known and powerful sedative). I had barely been there 15 minutes when I, the lone member of the public in attendance, was politely kicked out. Why? The council was meeting with County Executive Jack Louws and Sheriff Bill Elfo to discuss bargaining strategies for buying a piece of property just south of downtown Ferndale where the new jail will be built. Louws needed to talk about the nitty-gritty details of buying this piece of property and they couldn’t have the public present for that discussion. With that, the council went into executive session and I was shown the door.
But wait, you say, they already decided on a location? When did that happen?
I, too, was surprised this major decision had flown under the radar, so I started to piece together the series of events that led to the sheriff and county executive selecting a property and, apparently, a jail planner without any public input.
Last year, then Executive Pete Kremen, Sheriff Elfo, and the County Council faced pressure from the public over the $150-million-dollar price tag and 844-bed size of the jail the sheriff was proposing.
More than 300 people showed up at a public meeting to express their outrage over this monstrosity that would require doubling, and then tripling the rate of incarceration in our county to fill it. In response to the public outpouring, the County Council formed the Jail Planning Task Force (JPTF). Wendy Jones, the chief corrections deputy, and Ray Baribeau faced off against members of the public concerned about the jail’s size, including Lisa McShane and Barbara Sternberger.
This task force met for almost a year and compiled a list of recommendations. You can find their meeting minutes and final recommendations on the county website, but here are the key points:
They urged the county to hire a jail planner who would reexamine some of the initial flawed assessments that led to the proposed garish 844-bed facility.
They recommended a much smaller 500-700 beds for the new jail. “Based on information gathered to date, the JPTF has determined that it is reasonable to estimate that the number of beds required for initial construction should be in the range of 500-700.” They also estimated that each bed costs around $80,000 to add to the facility, which would make the difference between 500 and 700 beds roughly $16 million.
As for the location, they recommended the jail be a “reasonable” drive to the courthouse, positioned centrally in the county, and close to I-5.
Throughout this process, Louws pushed for a quick selection of the jail property, but many on the JPTF urged the county to secure a jail planner first. In the end, it was agreed the county would search for both concurrently.
About a month after the Jail Planning Task Force shut down, a new group launched called Public Safety Now—Build a Safe Jail. This group was formed almost entirely of Elfo’s former campaign committee and employees. Funding in part comes from vendors that currently do business with the Sheriff’s office. This group was able to hire a local videographer to produce some professional videos, put them on YouTube, and design a sleek website.
Just one problem—they completely missed the point of the earlier outrage. Their website seems more geared toward arguments with imaginary liberal caricatures rather than actual concerns about the jail. A classic example from their website, they listed one of the potential objections to building a new jail as “What’s wrong with our current jail, it looks fine from the outside.” Later on, I found this gem under myths. “We put mentally ill and homeless people in jail simply because they are ill” with a big “MYTH” box next to it.
This Elfo brain trust seems to ignore the central concern from last year’s outrage. Simply put, the proposed facility was too big and too expensive for our community. By ignoring this essential complaint and minimizing all opposition to a new facility, Public Safety Now seemed devoted to one purpose: cranking up the demand for immediate construction of a jail.
In July, Louws put out a public call for property submissions. He received piles of applications from property owners looking to sell their empty lot to the county. Taking two of the most jail-friendly members from the Jail Planning Task Force and the usual assortment of county employees, including former administrative deputy Dewey Dessler, Elfo and Louws pored over the property applications and interviewed jail planners.
On Oct. 24 of this year, a riot broke out in our current jail and the sheriff was quick to capitalize on it. Sending out a press release, which was echoed by the Public Safety Now group, Elfo hit the familiar notes of needing a new jail immediately. “A major contributing factor to this incident is the deteriorated and insufficient jail facility.”
On Nov. 7, Louws and Elfo met with the council to inform them they had selected a planner and a property, and to discuss their bargaining strategy. This is the meeting where I showed up back at the beginning of this article. Ken Mann asked why the public was shut out, but Louws assured the council that if anyone was interested, the meeting minutes from the work group were “disclosable under public disclosure.” With that, I was politely ushered out into the hallway. The next morning, Elfo returned to work at the sheriff’s office and informed all the deputies where the new jail was going to be located. That was it. The fix was in.
On Dec. 4, the Executive and the Sheriff made a big show of bringing forth all the pieces of property they thought could have worked but just weren’t good enough. The Sheriff mentioned in passing a few of the jail planning firms they interviewed, but it was clear, despite their protestations to the contrary, they both had their choices firmly in mind and were seeking a stamp of approval. Were they poor choices? Not necessarily. I decided to see what this location looked like, so I took my lunch break one blustery November day and I drove out to Ferndale to examine the property myself.
I’m not a professional assessor, but here are my impressions. It is relatively accessible from I-5. Google Maps informs me it is a 14-minute drive from the county courthouse. It is nestled between a junkyard and a slaughterhouse so no worries of nearby hospitals or schools. The ground itself seems pretty level and ready to be developed. In short, it is not a bad choice in my unprofessional view. As for the jail planner, the firm Elfo’s work group selected (DLR) comes well regarded with some solid architectural successes under its belt.
The issue isn’t really whether or not this is a good location or planner, but rather that Elfo and Louws have picked out a location and selected a jail planner without any significant input from the public. That is the same sort of bullheaded thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Will the planner be the sort of forward-thinking analyst that recognizes that jail populations were trending down each year, even before we legalized marijuana this year? Will this property be used to build a giant, sprawling 844-bed facility or a more modest 500-bed facility? These are essential questions that need answering and so far the public has been locked out of the process.
How Big is Too Big?
This seems a pretty straightforward question, but the amount of jail beds appears to be those cousins you only see on the holidays; every time you check in, they seem to have doubled in size. Thankfully, we have the homework leftover from the Jail Planning Task Force for some hard and fast numbers.
Now, this was before the legalization of marijuana, which will have an impact on length of sentences (although it is unclear how much), but already you can see how out of step some of the proposals are.
If you are looking for some similar communities who recently built jails for comparison, we have Kitsap, Thurston and South King County (called the “SCORE” facility.
Setting aside that South King County has lower crime rates than Whatcom, if we used the same ratio of population to jail beds as the SCORE facility, we would build a jail with 486 beds. Now Thurston County is unusual, because they still have their old facility functioning to the tune of 269 beds; however they are unable to move into their new jail because they don’t have enough prisoners to justify the cost.
This issue is not going away anytime soon. The County Council will be reviewing the jail site and approving the planner’s contract. The jail planner will then hold a series of public meetings as it reevaluates the needs of our community and gets a feel for what size jail we need. As I have demonstrated, that should be about 500 beds, and I hope the jail planner will come to the same conclusion.
Maybe the planner can have some success convincing Louws and Elfo that smaller is better. I don’t know; I won’t be allowed to sit in on that meeting either.
Riley Sweeney is a former campaign manager turned blogger. Find his work at http://www.sweeneypolitics.com
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