Whatcom Council purchases Ferndale property for new jail

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 28, 2013 

A new jail - on Whatcom County's wish list for more than two decades - came closer to reality when the council voted 6-1 to spend $6.1 million plus closing costs on a 39-acre site for the jail, in Ferndale.

The only dissenter in the Tuesday night, Nov. 26, vote was council member Barbara Brenner, who wanted to hold property owner Robert Janicki liable if contamination is found in the soil. This summer the county tested for soil and groundwater pollutants on the property, at the corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue, because a buried hazardous-waste landfill and the site of now-removed underground fuel tanks were on adjacent properties.

"Everything has come back 100 percent clean," county Executive Jack Louws said.

Brenner said she had heard rumors of illegal dumping directly on the proposed jail site and wanted the security of added liability language in the contract with Janicki. The council disagreed.

Some people who spoke at the meeting called on the county to transform its courts and jail system and adopt a restorative justice program. Under restorative justice, the offender repairs the harm done by the crime, and the offender and victim both are restored as full participants in society.

The concept gained traction after a push by the Restorative Community Coalition, until recently called the Whatcom County Re-entry Coalition. Irene Morgan, the coalition's founder, dismissed claims she heard from Sheriff Bill Elfo that alternative justice programs already were in place in the county.

The county runs a drug court that keeps defendants with minor drug offenses out of jail. Plans for the new jail include separate pods for inmates with mental illness.

"His definition is very different than ours," Morgan said. "(The programs) don't work inside the jail."

Council members decided the need for a new jail was urgent, whether or not alternative programs were improved.

"It's not one or the other," Brenner said.

Brenner, who describes herself as bipolar, said she would push to establish a mental health court as an alternative to incarcerating people with mental illness. Council members Ken Mann and Pete Kremen also said they wanted a mental health court.

"I think it's imperative that the correctional system here in Whatcom County take to heart the Restorative Community Coalition and people who are of like mind," Kremen said.

The current jail at the courthouse and the work center on Division Street don't have the capacity to meet demand: Some offenders are released immediately rather than being jailed after arrest. People being held on lesser charges often are released because of space constraints.

The existing jail was not well constructed and presents safety and security risks to inmates and jail deputies, council members have said.

The jail and work center have a combined capacity of 390 inmates. The first phase of the new jail will include 521 beds.

A new jail won't be taking inmates for several years, Louws said, as county and Ferndale officials work out the demand the facility will place on the city's sewer system.

County voters will be asked to approve a jail-construction bond. The initial estimated cost of construction was $109 million, but county officials have said they want to plan for a less expensive jail.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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