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Whatcom County executive fined $500 over 2015 jail mailer

Part of a mailer that Whatcom County sent out to households with at least one registered voter ahead of the 2015 election. The Public Disclosure Commission found the county violated two rules in sending the flier.
Part of a mailer that Whatcom County sent out to households with at least one registered voter ahead of the 2015 election. The Public Disclosure Commission found the county violated two rules in sending the flier. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

State campaign regulators fined Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws $500 on Thursday for violations related to a flier sent to Whatcom County voters during a push for a new jail last year.

The fine stems from a four-page, 11-by-17-inch mailer sent to households with at least one registered voter before the 2015 election. The flier contained information about the county’s proposed sales tax increase, which would have paid for a new Whatcom County jail. Voters rejected the measure.

The mailer irked many who opposed the new jail and took issue with spending county taxpayer money on what, to some, seemed to be a promotional flier.

The flier cost $45,725 to produce: $27,670 for printing and mailing, plus $18,055 for research and work by DLR Group, the consultant helping design and plan for the new jail.

Sixteen complaints were filed with the Public Disclosure Commission, which can levy fines against people who don’t follow election rules and guidelines.

Some alleged Louws, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, and Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran had all violated state election rules by benefiting from the flier, since all of their photos were included along with statements. Elfo and Louws were up for re-election that year.

Others claimed the mailer promoted the measure because it was only sent to voters; did not accurately present the costs; and simultaneously promoted another ballot measure by erroneously labeling the sales tax Proposition 1, instead of Proposition 2015-1.

After a year of investigation, PDC staff agreed that as the person who gave the final say on the fliers, Louws should be fined for:

▪ Only sending the mailer to households with at least one registered voter

▪ Failing to show the likely cost of the jail.

Findings

In a more than 1,000-page report, PDC staff laid out their findings, along with copies of the complaints and county responses.

At the time the mailer was sent, Bellingham had not signed onto a new jail deal with the county and six other cities. The county went into the November election thinking the jail would cost about $97 million for 521 beds if Bellingham was in, or about $75 million for 400 beds if Bellingham opted out.

The flier only stated the tax would be a 0.2 percent increase, or 20 cents per $100 purchase, and did not discuss the possible costs.

I don’t apologize to our community for trying to solve a problem. I do apologize to our community we didn’t send out a perfect document.

Jack Louws, Whatcom County executive

The investigation showed that before sending the flier, the county’s consultant reached out to the PDC to try to clarify what was allowed, but the PDC no longer reviews mailers for compliance before they are sent due to budget cuts.

The report also shows the measure was mislabeled due to information the county got from the auditor’s office.

PDC staff determined there was not enough evidence to support the other claims. Elfo and McEachran were not found to have done anything wrong.

Hearing

During a hearing in Olympia on Thursday morning, the commission fined Louws $1,000, with $500 suspended on the condition there be no similar violations in the next four years. Louws will pay the fine out of his own pocket.

Louws asked that the PDC clarify the rules so other jurisdictions wouldn’t be left guessing what is right or wrong.

“I understand that due to budget cuts that service was curtailed, and that Whatcom County was one of the first to ‘go it alone,’ ” Louws wrote in a letter to the PDC, referring to the lack of review for compliance. “Unfortunately what was once a collaborative process is not at this time.”

The commission discussed that issue Thursday, and agreed that having staff guidance available would have been helpful in this case.

Under state law, public resources may not be used to aid or coordinate campaigns, but the PDC has said a local jurisdiction may send one objective mailer about a ballot measure during the campaign season. The PDC has said that, “It is not only the right, but the responsibility of local government to inform the general public of the operational and maintenance issues facing local agencies.”

“I’m disappointed, but I’ll get over it,” Louws told the commission Thursday. “I don’t apologize to our community for trying to solve a problem. I do apologize to our community we didn’t send out a perfect document.”

Reached by phone, Kim Harris, one of the original complainants, said she was disappointed the fine was so low compared to the cost of the fliers.

“I feel like the fine was low because they felt like, ‘Well, we kind of dropped you off and left you to your own devices and now we’ve got to slap your hand because of it,’ ” Harris said.

Harris said she also did not feel the mailer presented both sides of the issue, such as concerns about building a larger jail.

“Do we want to have a giant jail so we’re busing criminals up here from all over the state?” Harris asked. “A lot of people in the community don’t want that to be our economy.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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