Local Election

Whatcom council newcomer will balance jail, own priorities

Whichever newcomer takes over for Pete Kremen on the Whatcom County Council after November will need to be ready to join a fierce debate, already in progress, about the future of the new jail and treatment programs intended to keep people out of jail.

The four candidates in the Aug. 4 primary election for Kremen’s District 1 seat — Bruce Ayers, Todd Donovan, Theresa Sygitowicz and Emily Weaver — were asked in a questionnaire from The Bellingham Herald what they would bring to the jail discussion in 2016.

They also were given the opportunity to step outside the current run of pressing council issues, if they wanted, to stake out their own priorities.

The top two vote-getters on Aug. 4 advance to the Nov. 3 general election. While only voters in District 1, which includes south Bellingham and the south county, get to vote in the primary, the November election is countywide.

The new jail

The candidate who appears to have the most to say on the jail issue is Ayers. He served as chairman of Public Safety Now, a local organization whose mission was to get a jail built quickly (by the end of 2015, the group said in 2012) that would be big enough and secure enough to meet the county’s needs.

Ayers, a former campaign manager for Sheriff Bill Elfo, has echoed statements by the sheriff and county Executive Jack Louws about unsafe and crowded conditions in the jail at the courthouse.

Progress on the jail has bogged down in recent months by a call from County Council members and Bellingham officials for more robust treatment programs for people with addictions and mental illness. Ayers said he has always supported enhanced behavioral health services, but not if they get in the way of building the jail.

“I would have separated funding for the replacement jail from the issue of doing more for behavioral health programming,” Ayers said. “It’s not an either/or decision. ... If I had been on the County Council (during this year’s debate), I would have filled the leadership void on the council and wholeheartedly supported the county executive’s efforts to replace the failing jail with a safe facility containing the space needed for effective behavioral health options.”

Sygitowicz, who like Ayers received the formal support of the Whatcom County Republican Party in her campaign, was clearer in her statement that a new jail and diversion programs both were important.

“Both should be addressed with equal importance,” Sygitowicz said. “We truly need to expand our mental health services in Whatcom County.”

Donovan said treatment options got short shrift compared to the jail, which will cost $97 million by current estimates.

“We now have a proposal for a large, expensive 521-bed jail that has inadequate funding for things that will save us money in the long term — more treatment and more pretrial diversion from jail,” Donovan said.

The jail was planned in top-down fashion, with the executive and his consultant taking the lead, and the council only coming to terms with the project in the final months of planning.

“The policies for siting, operating, diversion programs and mental health issues should have been established before sending (the jail plan) to the county executive,” Weaver said.

“I would have brought the debate out in public,” she added.

Candidates’ priorities

The candidates were asked to give their own priorities for the County Council.

Ayers has a law-and-justice focus to his campaign. In addition to getting a new jail built, which he said was “first and foremost” among his priorities, he also wanted to ensure adequate staffing levels in law enforcement in order to prevent crime, and establish partnerships with mental health and substance abuse services to divert people away from jail and into treatment.

Sygitowicz listed among her priorities a better economy and a reduced role for environmental groups, saying she would seek to end “‘closed-door’ meetings between the County Council and special interest groups.” County policy should be business friendly, she said, citing a need for family-wage jobs.

Donovan said he wanted to make progress on the new 8,844-acre park space around Lake Whatcom, acquired from the state in 2013 in a process known as reconveyance. The county will finish a new 20-year plan in 2016, and Donovan said he wants it to concentrate job and housing growth in urban areas.

Weaver had a longer list of priorities, about a dozen, including clean water; supporting companies that locate in the county; friendly customer service from government; repairing the county courthouse; and supporting seniors, people who are disadvantaged and Whatcom Transportation Authority.

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