Local Election

Sheriff candidates Bill Elfo, Joy Gilfilen discuss experience, plans for Whatcom jail

Sheriff Bill Elfo is facing an election challenge for only the second time in more than 15 years.

Elfo and Joy Gilfilen, president of the Restorative Community Coalition, are on the Nov. 5 ballot for sheriff. It’s a non-partisan race and they were the only two candidates to file, so they weren’t in the “top two” August primary.

Whatcom County sheriff is responsible for the Sheriff’s Office administration and the Whatcom County Jail, with a 2020 budget of more than $35 million and 203 employees, including 169 commissioned officers between sheriff’s administration and the jail, said Undersheriff Doug Chadwick.

It has a 2020 salary of $161,000 annually.

Elfo endorsed the funding initiatives for a new jail in Ferndale that voters rejected in 2015 and 2017, but now he supports a smaller jail in Bellingham to replace the current aging facility. He said that a new commitment to jail alternatives for low-risk offenders, coupled with a focus on mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, will allow a smaller and centrally located jail.

Gilfilen is running out of concern for restorative justice and opposes constructing a new jail. According to her website, she would “deep clean” the current jail; “fix all maintenance issues,” which would cost millions of dollars; reduce jail population by 50%; move the sheriff’s administration office to the county’s Emergency Operations Center; and move low-risk offenders and others to the Jail Work Center in Irongate.

If elected, Gilfilen would be the only sheriff in the state who is not a certified peace officer.

Because county sheriffs are elected officials, they are not required to meet peace officer certification under state law, said Tisha Jones, who is peace officer and canine certification manager at the Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien.

Jones said newly elected sheriffs must complete Newly Elected Sheriff’s Training or an 80-hour equivalent.

We asked the candidates about their qualifications:

Bill Elfo

Elfo, 64, is the former Blaine chief of police and has served four four-year terms as sheriff. He was appointed in early 2003 after Sheriff Dale Brandland left office for the state Senate.

Elfo ran unopposed for sheriff in 2003, 2007, and 2015. He defeated Steve Harris 75% to 25% in 2011.

He has a law degree and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice.

Elfo and his wife — a retired law-enforcement officer — live in Ferndale and have four children.

“I began my law enforcement career at age 19 in Florida,” Elfo said in an email. “I worked night shifts while attending (Nova Southeastern University) during the day. I earned incremental levels of responsibility and worked in virtually every facet of municipal law enforcement.”

Elfo is a graduate of the University of Louisville’s Southern Police Institute Administrative Officers Course, the FBI National Law Institute, the FBI Command College and the U.S. Department of Justice National Sheriffs’ Institute. He has been a police academy instructor and taught criminal justice and legal studies at the university level. He is a member of the Washington state Bar and the federal bar of the Western District of Washington.

In addition to his work in law enforcement, he is a former prosecutor and assistant city attorney.

“I’ve always been an advocate for the victim,” he said during the Indivisible Bellingham election forum on Oct. 21. “And that’s what I intend to do if I have the honor of being able to serve another four years being a voice for the voiceless.”

Elfo’s campaign website lists endorsements from Whatcom Republicans, the Lummi Nation Business Council, the Whatcom County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild, the Bellingham Police Guild, the Washington State Patrol Trooper’s Association, Bellingham/Whatcom Firefighters IAFF Local 106, every member of the Whatcom County Council and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws.

He’s raised $33,794 through Oct. 28, and started with a campaign balance of $15,430, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission. He’s spent $41,366.

Q: What would you say are your three greatest successes as sheriff?

1. Maintaining the quality of life we enjoy here in Whatcom County by reducing crime, gang activity and the presence of meth labs while protecting the most vulnerable and seeking justice for victims of crime. My most memorable and rewarding success was providing the leadership, direction and resources to solve Mandy Stavik’s murder and bring Timothy Bass to justice. I am proud of our team for that work as well as for their successfully protecting and seeking justice for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and violent crime using state-of-the-art techniques.

2. Increasing focus on providing treatment and services for those in mental health and/or substance abuse crisis. Law enforcement has seen increased and troubling trends involving people in mental health and substance abuse crisis. Jail and the criminal justice system are not always the best solution. Where safe and appropriate, people can and should be diverted to pathways for treatment and services. However, this must involve accountability and a willingness on the part of the person to pursue help.

For the past 16 years, I have been one of the advocates for a robust crisis stabilization center where law enforcement could take people for help rather than jail. I have been intimately involved in the planning for such a facility so as to ensure it is a viable and safe alternative. Construction has begun on a new facility that will come online in June.

3. To leverage increased behavioral health resources, I started a Mental Health Deputy program. Two trained deputies intervene with people in behavioral health crisis optimally before a crime is committed and direct them to treatment and services. A social worker often accompanies the deputies to calls and information is shared with similar programs being initiated by the police departments.

Joy Gilfilen

Gilfilen, 63, moved to Whatcom County to attend Western Washington University and was the school’s first female student patrol officer. She also attended Washington State University.

She said initially wanted to be a law-enforcement officer and was accepted into the Air Force ROTC when she attended Washington State University.

She volunteers as president of the Restorative Community Coalition and is single with two grown sons.

Gilfilen served as executive staff at the state Legislature for three legislators in the ‘80s. She has been a freelance business writer, real estate broker and corporate trainer/business consultant.

She coached local sports teams for her sons and worked in PTA and 4-H, according to her campaign website. She has served as vice president of programs of Whatcom Women in Business, been in Toastmasters and served in other professional organizations.

Gilfilen ran for county executive in 2015, losing to Jack Louws by 70% to 30%.

She’s running for sheriff to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” she said at the Indivisible Bellingham candidate forum Oct. 21.

“Unless a sheriff in this nation turns the story around, it will be virtually impossible to change the system,” Gilfilen said at the forum. “So, I’m not running against Bill as much as I am running in favor of a passion of mine which is to bring peace to our country.”

Gilfilen said she would move the Sheriff’s Office administration from the basement of the jail to the building that houses the sheriff’s Emergency Operations Center and use the extra jail space for corrections.

Her website lists her endorsements: 42 Legislative District Democrats, National Women’s Political Caucus and the Whatcom County Democratic Women’s Club.

She’s raised $9,282 through Oct. 28, mostly from individual contributions, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission. She’s spent $6,759.

Q: The job of sheriff is more than managing the jail — what relevant management and criminal justice experience do you have?

It is bad business to buy any more jails. Taxpayers are already in crisis and cannot afford more taxes. The incumbent Sheriff has been promoting a business and jail plan that is upside down for public safety.

The job is more than running the jail, but that is what consumes the most taxpayer dollars. Law enforcement is well-run by the undersheriff, as is emergency management. Corrections is different, it has been subject to the sheriff’s mismanagement.

The sheriff is a business manager whose total activities and responsibilities consume more than half the county budget. The county charter says the sheriff, “shall have the powers and duties .. .as provided by general law.” Then, “RCW 36.28.10 General Duties: The sheriff is the chief executive officer and the conservator of the peace in the county.”

The job includes fiscal, fiduciary and custodial care responsibilities — to the people. Taking away a person’s freedoms and holding them in jail means they become a legal asset and liability of the county. How the jail works is central to the job of an efficient Sheriff. It is critical that we elect a Sheriff who understands the responsibility to the public in their practices, policies, oaths of office, leadership and police work.

We elect the sheriff based on this public trust. We do not hire them, like other professional services, according to their degrees. I have spent 10 years researching the problems with our justice system and looking for ways to fix them. I learned the nuts and bolts by working to help people re-enter the workforce and society after serving time or being caught up in our destructive justice system.

I sat on the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force as a citizen proxy, studied jail plans and testified at hundreds of meetings, filed reports, wrote the “Stop Punishing Taxpayers, Start Rebuilding Community 2015 Taxpayers Report” to show taxpayers why we must not pass more taxes, and instead why and how we can invest in people and get a better return on our tax dollars.

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.