Response on RCW and County Charter Law on Sheriff’s Office / Facebook post, Whatcom Hawk, Wendy Harris

rcw on sheriff office

9:13am  August 8, 2017  Wendy Harris

Last night I wrote a letter to the [Whatcom County] council, sheriff and executive regarding the issue of legal requirements for the sheriff’s office as follows:

Under RCW 36.28.160, “The sheriff must keep an office at the county seat of the county of which he or she is sheriff.” This is one of the oldest laws on the books, dating back to 1891. http://app.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=36.28.160.

And the county charter makes Bellingham the county seat. Section 1.40 states that, “The County seat shall be Bellingham, Washington. Branch offices of the County are authorized, and branches hereafter established shall be by ordinance.” This means that in order for the Sheriff’s office to be moved and built in Ferndale, the county council would need to enact an ordinance declaring Ferndale a branch of the county seat. I am not sure what the implications are for this, beyond the new jail. For the many years this county has been in existence, it has never designated a branch office and this carries a certain degree of uncertainty regarding the full extent of the consequences. Will there be implications beyond the jail and partial relocation of the Sheriff’s new office?

There are certainly strong reasons for the Sheriff to remain in Bellingham where the courts are currently located and his presence is required. Having more than one office would result in organizational challenges, (i.e, which paper work and documentation will be kept in which of the offices? The office in Bellingham where court documents are received, or the one in Ferndale where inmates are housed?) This will result in inefficiencies and lost travel time, and possibly lost paperwork. Will Sheriff employees also be traveling back and forth between two offices? Or is the Bellingham office just meant as an empty gesture to satisfy legal requirements, while a desk and chair for the Sheriff remain unused?

I wanted to make sure the council was aware of this situation and was willing to enact an ordinance making Ferndale a branch of the county. Could the county council please have a public discussion at a committee meeting regarding these types of issues surrounding the need for a special ordinance? There are residents who are concerned that the county is attempting to switch the county seat to Ferndale, and still others who are concerned that the Sheriff’s Office is not best run out of a Ferndale location. The concerns that such an ordinance creates should be addressed directly and publicly.

This morning I received a response back from the [Whatcom] county executive [Jack Louws] as follows:

Thank you for your comments Wendy. The Administration has been aware of the RCW’s and Charter language since the onset of the project. The Sheriff’s office will retain a presence at the courthouse, including space for the courthouse deputy and others needed to facilitate the needs of the community. I anticipate that there will be space for the Sheriff to meet with the public if he so chooses to at this location, although it has been planned to have the operational base of the Sheriff’s office at La Bounty in Ferndale from the beginning.

If we are fortunate to have the ballot measure pass, there are details that will need to be finalized, including the designation of the LaBounty Rd. facility as a branch office of county government housing the Sheriff and Correctional facility.

There isn’t any legitimacy to the idea that the county is trying to move the county seat to Ferndale. It is an argument that appears to be made by some who have used just about every argument to convince others that that the Ferndale jail project is not the right direction that the county should go. I respect the right to their opinion, and their right to disagree with my thoughts, but thinking and promoting the idea that moving the courts and all divisions of general government from our current base is just stirring the pot.

Read Wendy’s post in the Whatcom Hawk Facebook group here. 

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