Politics Blog

County candidates speak on jail, alternatives to lockup

Candidates for Whatcom County Council, District 1, have answered five questions for The Bellingham Herald about issues now before the council, or the candidates’ own priorities.

This week, I intend to post one answer a day, leading up to our newspaper coverage of the race for outgoing council member Pete Kremen’s seat between candidates Bruce Ayers, Todd Donovan, Theresa Sygitowicz and Emily Weaver. Those stories are tentatively scheduled to appear in print on Sunday and Monday, July 26-27.

Some of you might fill out your ballots between now and then, so this weeklong series of Politics Blog posts should be of service to you. While the newspaper articles will distill and synthesize the information provided in the candidate questionnaires, and provide context for the race, the blog posts will more or less transcribe the candidates’ answers so candidates may be compared side by side. The candidates were asked to stick to a 300-word limit.

Question 1 involves possibly the most pressing issue the council has faced this year: the new jail. County council has put a 0.2 percent sales tax increase on the November ballot, to pay for construction and operation of a $97 million jail in Ferndale. But that price, and the 521-bed size, remain uncertain because the county’s biggest partner on the jail, the city of Bellingham, has so far balked at signing the document that sets the cities’ contributions to the jail’s cost. County officials have said they would pursue a roughly 400-bed jail at a cost of $75 million if Bellingham doesn’t participate.


The county executive met resistance from County Council members who said he wasn’t doing enough to improve behavioral health programs in his plans for the new jail. If you had been on the council during this debate, what would you have proposed to satisfy the need for a new jail and the need to better care for people with mental illness and/or addictions?


Emily Weaver (Past offices: elected to County Council, 1987):

I would have brought the debate out in public. I feel in order to be held accountable to your constituents there needs to be open and public debate so the electorate knows where their representatives stand on the issues and can provide feedback. Then the council can make an intelligent, informed decision. People are frustrated because they don’t know where or what the council members are not comfortable with. Negotiations take shape when items are identified as critical to the success of the project, and are covered in the project coming forward to the voters for their support. A taxing issue of this magnitude needs clarity to get support of the voters. There is consensus that health and wellness is an investment that will reduce jail times and stays.

The siting of a new jail should start with reviewing existing policies and budgets. Next a policy document developed by the council. First you review what is being done currently and what is being considered and what needs to happen with the new facility. The policies for siting, operations, diversion programs and mental health issues should have been established before sending it to the county executive. The executive then completes the framework to bring it back to the council for public hearing and approval with a recommendation of support going to the city of Bellingham, small cities and tribes. The recommendation would include a review of how our proposal meets those goals and if any new challenges were identified in the process. Clear concise goals get results. Then if special task forces are needed they are set up with the stakeholders to start so by the time we have voters’ support, and start building, the new items are taking shape and the users can participate in the operational side of those— (300-word limit reached here)


Bruce Ayers (elected to Bellingham City Council, 1993):

First, I would have separated the funding for the replacement jail from the issue of doing more for behavioral health programming. It is not an either/or decision. We should and we can be doing both. After 18 years we need to move forward with replacing the overcrowded and dilapidated jail. We can and should do more to keep our community members out of jail.

Once funding for the replacement jail is assured it will be four years before the new facility will be ready to serve our community. We can continue to improve behavioral health programs and funding during this time.

Second, these issues have persisted for decades, and the council has not provided the leadership needed to move forward with constructive solutions for the replacement jail. If I had been on the County Council, 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.

Under the county executive’s leadership, Whatcom County maintains some of the most robust jail diversion programs in the nation. With over $4 million expended annually on mental health and drug courts, intensive community-based probation services, mental health crisis treatment, and addiction services. I would have worked with the executive, sheriff and county staff to support their efforts to expand and enhance these programs. The executive’s plan remedies deplorable deficiencies in the current jail and provides the facility needed to build on existing behavioral health programs and successes.

I have provided community leadership on issues of public safety and mental health. As chair of the Public Safety Now Committee, I worked to educate the public on the dire need to replace the jail and enhance diversion and behavioral health services.


Theresa Sygitowicz (cemetery district and multiple boards):

The needs for a new county jail and the mental health centers are equally critical issues. Both should be addressed with equal importance. They have certain common issues that need to be treated separately. We truly need to expand our mental health services in Whatcom County. We need community outreach to support the successful programs while looking to update and improve others.


Todd Donovan (2015 Charter Review Commission):

We need a new jail. I would have pushed for the County Council, city councils, and the public to be included in a process, at the start, that would have set an agreed-upon budget and a tax plan to finance it. That would have accelerated the current discussion about people who might not need to be in the jail. You don’t start planning to build a house without first having a budget and a way to pay for it.

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.

I would not have given an unlimited budget for designing the jail. I will not be a rubber stamp for a $100 million tax increase.