Process for New Jail Cloaked in Secrecy
by Riley Sweeney
Riley Sweeney, an Olympia native, moved to Bellingham for college and found himself utterly enraptured. Determined to protect his new home, he worked as a political organizer on a cross-section of Democratic campaigns over the last seven years, before trading in his clipboard for a writer’s pad. Now he is a citizen journalist, writing a blog aptly titled, “The Political Junkie.” You can find him at www.sweeneypolitics.com.
For the past three years, I have been tracking Whatcom County’s attempts to build a new jail. With our current facility falling to pieces, Sheriff Bill Elfo has pushed for a newer and larger facility yet the process has been anything but transparent. I’ve been reporting on this at my website, The Political Junkie (www.sweeneypolitics.com) for a couple of years and I have compiled my work for Whatcom Watch.
Our Current Facilities
In 1983, Whatcom County opened its jail facility downtown but by 2004, it was clear that we were going to need to replace our jail. The original construction was done on the cheap, resulting in faulty wiring, crumbling walls and leaking pipes. In short, this is a disaster waiting to happen. After modifying the downtown jail up to 280 beds, the Whatcom County Council and the voters both approved a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to fund the construction of a temporary facility as a stop gap measure and to start saving up for a new jail. The county constructed an interim facility out on Irongate road that held 150 inmates, bringing our total capacity to 430 beds, with the ability to hold 470 inmates in a pinch. At any given day, there is an average of 384 inmates in the Whatcom County jails. With the current facility a ticking time bomb of safety hazards, it was clear that Whatcom County needed a new jail.
In 2011, County Executive Pete Kremen and Sheriff Bill Elfo had hired the DLR Group, (a jail planner) conducted a needs assessment, and were moving forward with buying a piece of property. There was just one problem, the proposed facility was huge. The 844 bed jail, that would scale up to a 2,000 bed facility, came with a $150 million dollar price tag. The jail planners had already been chased out of Colorado and California for building jails that were too big and expensive for their communities and a concerned citizens group, Right Size Jail, was sounding the alarm here in Whatcom.
During this time, Executive Pete Kremen had refused to hold a formal public meeting, something that was required by the environmental impact statement, but facing increased public pressure, he did open up the County Council chambers for an informal listening meeting. (see http://sweeneypolitics.com/2011/02/04/the-new-jail-pete-lets-have-a-talk)
Over 300 people showed up and almost universally expressed their outrage. To fill 844 beds, we would have to double, then triple our incarceration rate here in the next thirty years. In response to the public outpouring, the county council took some ownership and formed the Jail Planning Task Force, that contained big jail proponents (Wendy Jones, Chief Corrections Deputy; Ray Baribeau, citizen appointee; sheriff Bill Elfo) and also members of the “Right Size Jail” coalition (Lisa McShane, 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. In April of 2012, they presented their recommendations to the county council. Out of their research and discussion came some key points.
Jail Planning Task Force Recommendations
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.”
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, now County Executive Louws pushed for a quick selection of the jail property, but many on the JPTF urged the county to secure a jail planner first. You can read the back and forth in the minutes but in the end, it was agreed the county would search for both concurrently.
Astroturfing Support for the Jail
About a month after the Jail Planning Task Force shut down, a new group launched called Public Safety Now. This group was formed almost entirely of Bill Elfo’s former campaign committee and most concerning from an ethical point of view, they intend to raise $10,000 from the businesses that buy from, and sell services to, the current jail. As outlined in the minutes from their June 7 meeting in 2012, “Fund raising: Our budget is $10K. We discussed asking for corporate donations. It was suggested that we send a letter to correction vendors. Bruce (Ayers) will immediately send a letter to Wendy (Jones, Jail Administrator for the county) asking for a vendors list. Public interest groups should also be solicited. Volunteers are funding this effort so far.” The stated goal of this group is to urge the county to build a jail with 600-750 beds. They were 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. The Right Size Jail group and others were not concerned over any of the “objections” they mention on their website; it was that the proposed facility was too big and too expensive for our community. It is essential to scale it back to something more reasonable before moving ahead. But this group was unconcerned with such details, and began cranking up the demand for immediate construction of a jail.
The Invisible Committee
In July of 2012, Louws put out a public call for property submissions. He received piles and piles of applications from property owners looking to sell their empty lot to the county. To sort through the property and find a jail planner, Louws and Elfo formed the “Jail Planning Work Group” which is just like the “Jail Planning Task Force” except with just county employees and the Public Safety Now representatives instead of members of the public. This group did not keep any minutes or retain any written documents at all. I conducted a public records request on any materials associated with them and it came up empty.
On November 7, 2012 Louws and Elfo met with the council to inform them they had selected a planner and a property and to discuss their bargaining strategy, so naturally I attended to report on the proceedings. While there, council member Ken Mann asked if it was necessary to go into executive session. Louws argued it was, since the council was discussing purchase prices. Mann, thankfully, raised the issue of public involvement and asked if the public had been brought into the process. Louws responded that at the county council meeting scheduled for December 4, Louws would bring forth the list of properties and explain why their choice was the superior one, then get the public (and the council’s) blessing. Former county executive, now current council member Pete Kremen, offered, “You can’t involve people unless you have something for them to consider.” Louws followed with, “Our committee has been meeting and discussing this. If people want to know about it, they can do a public records request and find out.” At that, Mann relented. The meeting went into executive session and I was ejected from the proceedings.
Except I later discovered, you cannot do a public records request and get the details.
The Proposed Site
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. I decided to see what this location looked like so, on my lunch break, my wife and I drove out there to examine the property ourselves.
I am not a professional assessor, but here are my impressions. It is relatively accessible from I-5. Google Maps informs me it is a fourteen minute drive from the county Courthouse. It is nestled between a junkyard and a slaughterhouse with no bus access. Finally, the ground itself seems pretty level and ready to be developed although a later examination of the maps shows a wetland in the north corner. In short, it is not a bad choice from my unprofessional view.
Of course, there is the whole concern about why the jail is to be located in Ferndale in the first place. With the time spent ferrying prisoners back and forth from the courthouse, I wonder if our deputies will have time to respond to all the rest of their duties. Another issue is where do released prisoners go. The sheriff has indicated that they will be dropped off in downtown Bellingham rather than released into the neighborhood near the site, but again more time spent in transportation.
After starting negotiations on a jail site, Louws has hired a new jail planning firm (the DLR Group) and they began working on a proposal. They met with the Council in early June this year to present their progress and the site selection came up. They repeatedly referred to it as the selected site and none of their presented material made any reference to any other location than the LaBounty road site. Bill Valdez, DLR project lead, said definitively, “This is the site that has been selected. We examined it.”
As they walked through the various challenges with the property, DLR declared that they met with “all stakeholder groups.” Barbara Brenner’s ears perked up. “Have you met with the neighbors who live near the property?” The planners quickly backtracked. “We only met with people in the County.” “The neighbors live in the county!” Brenner responded but Kathy Kershner quickly came to the planners rescue. “I think she means all the departmental stakeholders within the county government.”
One thing that everyone can agree on is that this site has room to grow. We can build a moderate sized facility here and add on bunk houses as they are necessary for another fifty years without even needing to think about conserving space.
The Missing Needs Analysis
During this time, DLR asked Elfo for the contact information for any possible critics or concerned citizens so that they could meet with them and discuss expectations for public involvement in the process. Naturally, Elfo gave them the contact info for the chair of his reelection committee and head of Public Safety Now, Bruce Ayers.
Just as with the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a project of this size requires a scoping meeting, which was held in Ferndale on May 16 this year. The press release announcing the scoping meeting
was very clear about how large the proposal will be, “The first phase would open in 2017 with up to 660 beds. Based on a needs analysis through 2040, it is anticipated that a future phase might occur after 2030 which could bring the facility to approximately 800 beds total.” I was thrilled, the county had actually conducted a new needs assessment! The number of beds was still way too big but at least we could look at the county’s homework and find out how they came to these numbers.
Naturally, I looked on the county website for the needs analysis but it was nowhere to be found. So I put in a public records request, and you know what I discovered? It doesn’t exist. At least not yet
There is an outdated needs analysis from June 2008 which everyone agrees is incredibly flawed. It was that needs analysis that led to the earlier 844 bed facility that Sheriff Elfo was promoting in 2011. But Mike Russell, facilities manager for Whatcom County and one of the leads on the new jail, responded to my public records request and contends they are not using that document to guide this project.
So what are they using to decide how large a facility is necessary? They are using a number from a needs analysis that has not been written and will not be completed for another four months. That’s right, they are planning to build a jail of a certain size before doing the homework to figure out how big the jail needs to be. Here is Russell’s email responding to my public records request:
“As we discussed the new needs assessment will be completed around the end of September. It will give us a much more accurate picture of the number of beds needed for the new jail. As you know the old needs assessment is not up to date. The 660 number was used in the EIS scoping statement as a projected number until the current needs assessment is completed. I understand from you that this concludes our public records request on this issue.” (private correspondence, Mike Russell to the author)
Russell later called me to help clarify his statement. I asked him repeatedly where the 660 bed projection came from and he said it was a result of the Jail Planning Task Force. I have read the Jail Planning Task Force’s report and nowhere in there did it ask for a facility with 660 beds. Russell responded that it must have come from the working group on the proposed jail. I asked if he meant the executive jail planning work group, which has zero representation by mental health advocates or Right Size Jail members. He confirmed that this group is the one who came up with the 660 bed projection.
I would love to examine the thinking that went into coming up with that number, but as I already discovered, they did not take minutes, notes or any other written documents. Blocked again by the invisible committee.
On August 6 this year, the DLR group presented again before the county council and listed all the different factors they had examined when they were trying to establish the right size for the jail, however when pressed, they said that they did not quantify any of these factors, just established that they increased or decreased the need for jail beds. The planners are currently proposing a facility with 521 beds for phase one and 649 beds for phase two but they could not tell the council how much time would pass between phase one and phase two.
A New Sheriff’s Headquarters
The other surprising information to come out of the scoping meeting was the details on the new sheriff’s headquarters that would be built next to the jail. Spanning an expansive 38,000 square feet, this facility would also include a 32,000 square foot warehouse to store equipment. Just to put that in perspective, the warehouse plus the office is a facility three times the size of the the Bellingham Farmers Market, twice as large as the Lightcatcher Museum and more than half the size of the Bellingham Costco. Remember, this is an office in addition to the jail administration facilities. I know that the sheriff department has specialized needs but this is a huge facility for the number of people that actually work for the sheriff.
How Big is Too Big?
Really, this is what it all comes down to. It seems that every time public interest in this multimillion dollar project wanes, the size increases. When there is public scrutiny, the size decreases. So what is the right size jail?
A number of factors affect jail populations. State sentencing guidelines which can push prisoners out of the state penitentiaries and into local jails drive prisoner levels up while the legalization of marijuana reduces sentence lengths as drug charges are frequently tacked onto other criminal charges adding time to a prisoner’s stay. National averages show fewer people are committing violent crimes each year and the local funding of mental health services has a huge effect on reducing prisoner levels. In many ways, it is difficult to predict our needs for the next forty years, however we can try.
One thing that does not drastically affect our demand is the border. Homeland Security has their own facility for holding detainees and while we can process their people at our facility, it is not a significant demand on our system.
To get some perspective, I looked into some of our neighboring counties to see what they had built in the last couple of years. Remember, we currently hold an average of 390 inmates in our facilities. SCORE stands for the South Correctional Facility and serves all of south King County and was also designed by the DLR group.
If Whatcom County were to follow the same ratio of prison beds to population served as SCORE, our jail should be 496 beds. If Whatcom County were to follow the same ratio as Kitsap County, our jail should be 422 beds.
Even using the flawed needs analysis, the DLR group agrees that we won’t break 500 inmates until after 2023. In their presentation to the council, they spoke about creating two jail pods with 250 to 300 bunks each that could be scaled up (add more bunks to single cells) as necessary to a maximum of around 400 inmates per pod.
So why not just build 660 beds and know that we have the space for the next fifty years? Simple, the cost per bed for a facility of this size is estimated at $80,000. The difference between a 500 bed facility and a 660 bed facility is $12.8 million dollars and that’s money our county does not have. Looking to the future, staffing a facility of that size would significantly drain our county resources for years to come, mopping up money that could be used for mental health services and youth outreach programs. You know, things that actually reduce the need for jail beds.
Executive Louws emailed me recently to let me know that he plans to initially build a facility of 540 to 580 beds, but this simple fact that all I have to go on for this claim is his email makes it difficult to believe this is the number that will actually be used. The jail planners are standing by their 521 bed proposal with an increase to 649 beds after an indeterminate amount of time.
Obviously this is much closer to a reasonable number of beds, but with so much of this vital process obscured from the view of the public, I am unsure of how much we can rely on a simple email to a journalist as a reliable indicator of what is going to happen.
I mentioned it earlier but as you can see, the level of public scrutiny seems to be directly tied to the size of this proposed facility and there appears to be a concerted effort to keep this process as far from the public’s reach as legally possible. Personally, I put my faith in the County Council and hope that after four years of deferring to the Sheriff and Executive, they will take an active role and provide some oversight on this vital issue.
No matter the process that brings us to this point, it is crystal clear that right now, the county does not have the money to build this facility, no matter the size. With the funds from the initial sales tax measure spent on the interim facility and securing a jail planner, the county will have to go to the voters and request the money for a new jail. It is up to the taxpayers and the council to ensure that we are funding a reasonable facility, and the only way to do that is to keep this jail process open and transparent to the public.