August 22, 2019 Dena Jensen
Here’s a quick recap of some key information regarding Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo who is seeking reelection this year.
Sheriff Elfo supported Minutemen in 2005
In 2005, Sheriff Bill Elfo affirmed his support of the Minutemen vigilante group, which had formed around that time and was associated with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. This was in response to publicity about people entering Arizona illegally. That year about 100 Minutemen volunteers were recruited here in Washington State.
An August 12, 2005 Globe and Mail article, stated:
“He [Sheriff Elfo] does not consider them vigilantes, he said. They are allowed to carry weapons so long as they acquire the proper permits.’There’s a right to bear and carry firearms, as long as they are carrying them for their own protection and not using them to go out and apprehend people. That’s their right. It is a little different philosophy down here with guns,’ he said.
“The Minuteman members say they will report any illegal border crossings to authorities, Sheriff Elfo said. ‘As long as that is what they are doing, and not taking the law into their own hands, we welcome them.’
A couple months later, an October 14, 2005 article, The Seattle Times reported:
“The city of Bellingham and the state’s Democratic Party have denounced as racist and divisive the presence of civilian patrols at the U.S.-Canada border and want Gov. Christine Gregoire to tell them they’re not needed. “Referring to the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps as ‘self-appointed militia and vigilantes with limited training,’ Bellingham’s City Council this week passed a resolution condemning the volunteer guards, who stationed themselves Oct. 1 at eight posts between Blaine and Sumas.”
Sheriff Elfo has supported a mega-jail and the Whatcom Republican Party
In the Oct 20, 2011 Northwest Citizen article written by Riley Sweeney, it stated that, “Elfo supports and has championed a 600-bed jail on a site that is way out in the county and contains a fragile wetland.”
In a Jun 17, 2011 Northwest Citizen article, also by Sweeney, about the 2011 Whatcom Democrats Endorsement meeting, in a section on the Whatcom County Sheriff candidates that year, the article stated:
“…Bill Elfo was asked the question, ‘Have you given any money to the Republican Party?’ and he said ‘I am not a member of the Republican party, I work with leaders on both sides and attend both events.’ Unfortunately this dodges the question, because Bill Elfo has a history of giving money to the Republican party locally. In the past seven years, he has given $690 to the Whatcom County Republicans and precisely $0 to the Whatcom Democrats.”
Since the time of the article, at some point in that same year of 2011, despite not having donated the the Whatcom Democratic Central Committee for the preceding 7 years during which he was donating to the Whatcom County Republican Party, according to records on the Public Disclosure Commission website, Elfo donated $50.00 to the Whatcom Democratic Central Committee.
Also, according to PDC records, the only other year since then that he has donated to the Whatcom Democratic Central Committee was in 2015, one of the years of the jail sales tax vote. In 2017, the year of the most recent jail sales tax vote, Elfo donated $5 to the Whatcom County Republic Party and none to the Whatcom Democrats. In each of the years from 2013 to 2017, Elfo donated to the Whatcom Republicans (and as previously mentioned, only donated to the Whatcom Democrats during that same period in 2015, the year of the jail sales tax vote.) Elfo has not made any donations to either party in 2018 or 2019.
Sheriff Elfo and the 2015 jail mailer
In 2015, Sheriff Elfo, who was running for office, allowed a photo of himself, identified as Sheriff Bill Elfo, in his uniform, and a quote of his to be included in the mailer in support of Proposition 2015-1, a sales tax initiative to construct a new jail facility that was sent out by Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, paid for by taxpayers, in October of 2015. According to the PDC, this mailer failed, “to include a fair and objective presentation of facts concerning the size and cost of constructing a new jail.”
Sheriff Elfo blames lack of jail upgrades on Facilities Management
In a July 2017 radio show broadcast, Sheriff Elfo alleged that Whatcom County Facilities Management was responsible for a reluctance to spend money on renovations to the Whatcom County Jail.
However subsequent to Sheriff Elfo’s statement, Whatcom County Facilities Manager, Mike Russell, stated his perception of where reluctance to spend money on jail repairs/projects was coming from:
“The reluctance would be a combination of those departments. My understanding is since the County was focusing their efforts on a New Jail the decision makers (Executive, Sheriff, Council) did not see it wise to spend millions of dollars on the major repairs/reconfiguration projects for the existing jail. The Facilities Department has continued to do day to day maintenance of the existing jail. The Facilities Department does what we are directed to do and that is to carry out those directions, help with the scope, cost estimating, design, construction management and insures that things are done to code and follow the requirements of the Public Works in the RCW’s.”
In September of 2017, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws had stated: ““The life safety issues – five years ago we identified we had these – and we were holding off in the anticipation of possibly getting a new jail.”
Sheriff Elfo balks at civilian oversight of law enforcement
At a July 2017 community safety forum, Sheriff Elfo notably balked at the idea of civilian oversight of law enforcement. This oversight is something that immigrants in Whatcom County and their advocates have been calling on their representatives to provide for over two and a half years, now. Advocates assert oversight is critical to ensuring that local law enforcement is not cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on immigration matters, nor engaging in racial profiling.
At the forum Sheriff Elfo expressed disbelief that community members would feel too intimidated to bring their experiences to the Whatcom County Sheriff, making the statement, “I just went over and talked to about 300 Spanish speaking people through an interpreter. And none of them seemed to be scared.”
Interestingly, after having maintained throughout the forum that community members should not be afraid of the Sheriff’s Office, the Sheriff ended up exhibiting behavior that could, in fact, instill fear in individuals who are people of color in our community.
Near the end of the event, one of the presenters at the forum brought up a scenario that involved Michelle Vendiola. Vendiola had been in the news regarding her participating in a demonstration on the I-5 freeway in support of water protectors fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Subsequently she was targeted by the County Prosecutor. But Vendiola had not been convicted of any criminal charges.
When Vendiola’s name was mentioned at the forum by the presenter, Sheriff Elfo interrupted at about 49:20 on the video of the forum:
Sheriff Elfo: “And could you repeat who that was you are talking about?”
Karly: “Yeah, so Michelle Vendiola and the intensity that the Whatcom…”
Sheriff Elfo: “What is, what is her crime?”
Karly: “We’ll go over…”
Sheriff Elfo: “Is she the lady that blocked the freeway? That took the children up on the freeway and caused three serious accidents? Is that who we are talking about?”
Thus, the mention of the name of Michelle Vendiola, a Bellingham resident who is an enrolled member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe of Nevada, caused the Whatcom County Sheriff, who had appeared at the event in uniform, to publicly put forth accusatory questions that could brand her as someone who brought children up onto a freeway, blocked it, and “caused three serious accidents.” This begs the question of how the Sheriff might similarly make accusatory statements about people he suspects might have committed crimes, but before they might be charged or convicted, using his authority as a form of intimidation that may make community members afraid to pursue justice for themselves or others.