Posted by: sweeneyblog | June 6, 2013

Jail Planners Face a Skeptical Council

Update: Jack Louws has emailed me to clarify a statement by Wendy Jones and note that the County is currently considering the  “initial build to house from about 540 to 580 depending on configuration”

If the jail planning firm, the DLR Group, was expecting an easy reception from the County Council last Tuesday, they were sorely disappointed. When they brought forward the work they had done, the Council was well-prepared to exercise their oversight responsibilities, asking about everything from size to missing needs analysis to poor stakeholder communication.

County Exec Louws speaking with DLR before the meeting

County Exec Louws speaking with DLR before the meeting

Tyler Schroeder, planning manager for the County, spoke first about the SEIS process. He said that they received 40 comments on the scope of the EIS process. “There were some comments submitted that were outside the scope of SEPA but I hope they will be addressed as we go forward on the process.”

Next, the team from DLR spoke about the location. 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, they 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.”

Moving along, DLR presented their projections for how many beds our county required. They started with this graph, showing historical trends on Whatcom County incarceration.

Historic Projections according to DLR

Historic Projections according to DLR

You can click the image to enlarge it but right away two things stood out. First of all, the average occupancy of the jail is currently pegged at 400 inmates, yet I recently spoke with Wendy Jones, the jail administrator for the County, and she said that on any given day there are an average of 265 inmates in our jail facilities. UPDATE: Jack Louws emailed me and clarified that Wendy Jones was speaking just about the downtown facility and that our average occupancy of the Whatcom County jails is around 400 inmates. 

It makes me wonder if they are counting people who are under house arrest or otherwise not in the facilities.

Since we still do not have a needs analysis, the jail planners instead relied on historical averages to create a graph. Here is the graph they presented showing the needs of Whatcom County going forward.

Whatcom County Jail projections

DLR Future Projections

Their projections show that we don’t cross the 500 bed threshold until 2025. But they admitted that this is conjecture, “We really have no idea what is going to happen,” said Valdez.

Right off the bat, Ken Mann dug in with questions. “Where  is the needs analysis? What about changing drug laws, diversion techniques, investing in mental health services? If you are just extending a line into the future and running it through a few variables, that is nowhere near the rigor we need.”

"Where is the needs analysis? I expect more than just continuing a line from a graph . . ."

“Where is the needs analysis? I expect more than just continuing a line from a graph . . .”

DLR responded that they had looked at Whatcom County’s population growth and extrapolated from there, saying they ran eight different models to come up with these numbers.

Pete Kremen pointed out at that the nation-wide correlation between population growth and the need for more prison beds has declined and asked if they took that into consideration? They reiterated that they ran eight models and considered national trends.

Capacity of Whatcom County jails

Capacity of Whatcom County jails

The planners made a good point that as you increase the number of jail beds available, the number of people incarcerated tends to jump up. They showed this graph (see left) which highlights how many more people were locked up after we opened the interim jail facility.

As they went into the possible design details of the facility (where the giant Sheriff’s office and warehouse is to be located), Sam Crawford brought up a very good point. “If we are building this jail with modular pods, couldn’t we just build a 500 bed facility and expand it when we needed more? The square footage would be the same, we just upgrade the facilities to add more beds when they are needed?” The planners agreed but reiterated that they were currently planning for a facility with 600 beds to accommodate, “special events, like a football game, when you need that extra capacity.”

All and all, I was impressed with the thorough and articulate questions the Council asked. Carl Weimer asked about where the mental health facilities would fit into this plan (they don’t, right now) and even Bill Knutzen got into it, asking about LEED certification and planning for heavy rains.

I am pleased that the council is greeting these plans with skepticism, we need their vigorous oversight to ensure that we don’t get a facility that is too large and too expensive for our needs.

Speaking of cost, on June 20th they will be holding workshops to review layouts and build some projections about how much the taxpayers will have to pay for this facility.

On June 17th, the Ferndale City Council will be considering an advisory vote relating to the proposed jail. The notice for this vote includes perhaps my favorite sentence I’ve seen in a public document so far, “The City Council will consider an advisory vote related to the potential siting of a jail facility/ sheriff offices in Ferndale.  The public is invited to attend.  This is not a public hearing.” Yes, enjoy that contradiction for a moment.

Stay tuned next week for a selection of comments that were submitted to scoping process and the case of the invisible executive work group.



  1. Yet another fine piece of reporting! While the unexpectedly vigorous response of the Council is encouraging, I will be surprised if this equates to specific restrictions on the proposed jail. Nonetheless, this creates at least a thin filament of hope.

  2. No mention of the piggybacking onto this project of a super big box headquarters office for the sherrif, the size of 3 Ferndale Haggens stores? You know, the one that voters would never approve on its own?

  3. Huey Your comment is so right on giveing those sheriffs a larger place to sit is not what we are looking for to raise our taxes….

  4. Having first hand knowledge of the experience of a person who is incarcerated in the Work Center Jail I think that the view point of the inmates should be taken into consideration for a new jail as well as the jailers. For instance, how is medical attention going to be improved? including Mental Health problems. And, how about improving and updating visitation accommodations? And, what about just daily hygiene for the inmates? Such as bathroom and shower facilities? I think it’s great that there isn’t any smoking – but what about withdrawal issues? Depression and other symptoms need attention .
    Yes, jail is supposed to be punishment BUT the punishment should be made to suit the deed. Should criminally violent people be put together with nonviolent inmates?

    • Excellent point. I would like a full scoping of rehabilitation services for the jail. Because jail means simply incarceration across the nation doesn’t mean it has to be as such here.

  5. Excellent reporting Riley! Count me in for another donation to keep this blog alive! Money better spent than a subscription to the Bellingham Herald…I would encourage everyone else to do so as well.

    • Thank you so much, Politically Jaded, for your donation! Your support keeps the lights shining bright here at The Political Junkie.

  6. Thank you Riley for the update…There are many reasons to re-consider the jail as its proponents presently see it. My reasons are provincial, as it is slated for my area. As such, the ‘site’ is my metier for now…It’s not complicated when one considers the ‘selection’ had nothing to do with bed numbers, or mental health care, or any considerations about reform of the system—nothing so grandiose had orh has anything to do with what’s transpired so far—Indeed, Ferndale was chosen for one reason: Our utilities, and county authorities have said as much time and again. We ferndale citizen/taxpayers spent the past 15 years building the finest infrastructure in the County, annexed land in anticipation of cooperation with our Tribal neighbors, and much more—And now the sheriff and county exec want what we can provide—The EIS at its very basic skeleton prescribed by law must first offer at least one studied, viable alternative—of the final sites considered–ONLY ONE HAD UTILITIES CAPABLE OF HANDLING 1000 NEW TOILETS. This selection process stinks, if you’ll pardon the pun, and that alone should—and I believe will—cause at least a pause in dropping this turd on Ferndale.

  7. Hi Riley and everyone else – Mr. Stewart emailed me to note the reporting on the City of Ferndale’s notice that came out, and I apologize I’m not a regular reader so I didn’t catch it myself.

    Anyway – The notice is an error and it’s our fault. The City Council is not considering an advisory vote at the June 17 meeting. They’re going to be discussing whether or not to direct staff to author a resolution related to the new jail project. The basic options they have are: No resolution; Resolution in Support; Resolution in Opposition. That, of course, could totally change, but those are the suggested alternatives from staff.

    No resolution will actually be voted on at that meeting. If the council directs staff to author a resolution, it will likely come back the first meeting in July.

    Meanwhile, Councilmember Lloyd Zimmerman has advocated for an advisory vote, but he has not submitted any of the required paperwork to the Clerk’s Office to get that process in front of the City Council for consideration.

    Related to the language about it not being a public hearing, that was noted because there are times when a city has to have official, legally-required public hearings and we hold a more formal process for those prior to the public speaking (reading rules, going off a sign-up sheet, etc.).

    At Ferndale City Council meetings, a member of the public gets the opportunity to speak on every item on the agenda once that item is actually up for discussion. We believe that’s a more robust public participation process than what some other jurisdictions do, where they have one public comment period either at the beginning or end of the meeting (excluding public hearings) and then once topics are on the agenda the legislative body itself has all of the discussion.

    Our Council has said they like to hear from the public while the topic is being discussed as it keeps those comments fresh for consideration by council.

    So while it’s not an official public hearing per state law (either discussion on the resolution to the County Council or even a ballot measure resolution on an advisory vote), the public would be invited to speak on the discussion topic as that’s what we always do.

    It might slow our meetings down a bit, but we like that enhanced public input.

    • Thank you Sam for that clarification! I appreciate it.

    • Thanks Sam for the clarification…there are some systemic communication issues regarding City Hall in ferndale that are not of your creation…you’ve made some great improvements…

  8. I like the pointed questions from the council,
    even Mann’s insistence on rigors he wouldn’t normally apply to some of his own more self-centered decisions.
    Sad to say that in the end, they won’t mean a thing.
    No needs models will be altered,
    no reduced plans for Sheriff’s offices and Day Spa,
    no rehab or inmate sanitation and comfort issues
    and no neighborhood concerns will prevail over this preset scheme already well in motion.

  9. I’m surprised there is not more talk about what seems an 800-lbs gorilla—the infrastructure consisting of dozens of agencies, non-profits, etc., etc., staffed by thousands of people—including bail bonding companies (Is that to be the new industry in the historic ferndale downtown?), transportation, mental health, drug rehab, and all court services, like probation offices—who thought it was ever a good idea to separate the jail from all of the services needed to make it work even as badly as it does?—Of course there I go again as a Ferndale resident facing this beast as a neighbor—the jail seems just the beginning—a 5 yr old could see it.

  10. Riley,
    I’ve been so busy with other matters I didn’t get to comment on the jail EIS scoping. There are many issues that need to be scoped, including the impact to businesses in Bellingham if the jail and the sheriff’s office moves to Ferndale. All the employees, services, etc., would get relocated to another area which will have a profound impact on Bellingham business. Someone needs to look into this.

    Second, the jail planning site ( includes a link to “Public Safety Now”, which is I have never seen a government web page point purposely to an advocacy page that operates outside of government. Very strange. If this is going to be allowed, perhaps equal time for Build a Right Size Jail in the Right Place can be linked on the web page.

    Thanks for digging and reporting. Now, back to the County Council elections. 🙂

    • Thank you David for the head’s up on that…I’m gonna elaborate a bit in my reply…some of it a repeat of your posting..

      The following is by a private advocacy group that wants a new jail now, and their link is posted on the official County jail-information site, which is likely illegal—I’ve asked about it, and if it is legal, I asked that a “No Jail In Ferndale” (fb) link be added as well…here’s just a snippet of what this well-funded group, to whom the Sheriff & Bellingham’s Chief belong!:

      “Public Safety Now is a group of community citizens who are concerned with the current unsafe and failing Whatcom County Main Jail facility. It is the position of Public Safety Now that a new main jail facility including a Jail Work Center: be sited in a geographically centralized location that serves all of Whatcom County (urban fringes of Bellingham)—(That’s Ferndale!)
      contain 600-750 beds
      be horizontally constructed for efficient operations and future expansion
      contain space for efficient Sheriff’s Office support and law enforcement operations
      This critical and essential facility should be constructed and ready for operations by the end of 2015 or sooner.”

  11. this came a few hours after my inquiry about the private jail advocacy group being promoted by the county on the official tax payer funded site—that was fast, and I’m cynical, a bit…I guess the prospect of having to give opposition groups the same forum and placement jolted them to unprecedented speed-in-action::

    Good afternoon Glenn,

    Thank you for your inquiry. We have removed the Public Safety Now link from Whatcom County’s New Jail Planning website. Thank you again for bringing this to our attention. Please continue to check the website for new information as it is frequently updated.


    Tawni Helms, PHR
    Administrative Coordinator
    Whatcom County Executive Office
    311 Grand Avenue, Suite 108
    Bellingham, WA 98225

  12. […] a tireless advocate for a right-sized jail. At every turn, he has pushed for more transparency and controlling costs on our new jail. This alone should justify his reelection, but his series of moderate votes have […]

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