September 19, 2019 Dena Jensen
On Monday night, September 23, 2019, from 7:00-8:30 p.m. Whatcom County will be holding the Whatcom County Justice Updates event in the Whatcom County Council Chambers, at 311 Grand Avenue, Bellingham, WA 98225. Attendees will be given the opportunity to ask questions and talk with the presenters regarding the County’s recently released Public Health and Public Safety Initiative on which The Bellingham Herald reported in an August 11, 2019 article by Denver Pratt.
According to Exhibit A, related to Resolution 2019-036, “Adopting a Statement of Public Health, Safety, and Justice Facility Planning Principles for Whatcom County,” which the County Council unanimously passed on August 7, 2019, “Public Health” relates to, “behavioral health services both within the jail and available to the broader community”, and “Public Safety” relates to, “current criminal justice system and programs, and current and future incarceration needs and projections.”
The initiative includes a general approach for the County to move forward in assessing community needs for behavioral health and diversion services, along with needs related to incarceration. It also includes an approach to necessary actions and funding for providing solutions to those needs.
On September 10, 2019, at the Whatcom County Council Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting, committee and County Council Members engaged with Whatcom County Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder, Whatcom County Health Department’s Human Services Supervisor Perry Mowery, and (very briefly) with Sheriff Bill Elfo, to begin moving forward with their plans for public health and public safety.
As the discussion unfolded the four different phases of the initiative were outlined. From material included in the Council packet for that day (starting on page 489), the phases are:
- “Phase One: Develop a Behavioral Health and Public Safety Needs Assessment“
- “Phase Two: Alternatives and Designs“
- “Phase Three: Develop Conceptual Design“
- “Phase Four: Public Engagement”
One of the main objectives accomplished at the meeting was identifying what type of focus with which to provide consultants in a Request for Proposal (RFP.) Deputy Executive Schroeder recommended a scope of work for the consultants that would rely heavily on guidelines laid out in Phase One of the initiative, in other words, the needs assessment phase. Council and committee members voted in agreement with this approach.
There is a group of people, including Sheriff Elfo, Council Member Barry Buchanan, a representative of the Health Department, and others who have started to identify public facility, correctional facility, and behavioral health consultants to be evaluated for taking on the task of the needs assessment-related work.
It’s fortunate that at least a strong focus on behavioral health and alternatives to jail are incorporated in Phase One – and Phase Two – of Exhibit A. And looking at what we actually need for public health and public safety first — before we try to design any facilities or services — definitely rises to the top as the most logical approach.
However, regarding the turn of the committee’s discussion, after generally mapping out the first scope of work they wanted accomplished, behavioral health never reentered the conversation, while the jail seemed to dominate. The reason for this appeared to be related to the fact that there is an anticipated deadline for a ballot initiative included in Resolution 2019-036’s attached principles for planning. Here was that stated goal:
“We recognize the need to provide a safer, more secure, and healthier environment for those who work, visit, and are incarcerated within the public safety/justice facility; therefore, we will work to have a funding proposal on the ballot with a goal of no later than November 2020.”
Thus, talk proceeded with questions from Council Member Donovan about whether Council would gain details about jail size/projected number of beds and jail location soon enough, to then make decisions on design and funding, soon enough, to have that all processed for a decision by July 2020 to put a measure on the ballot for the November election that year.
Deputy Executive Schroeder responded with proposals of ways that could be best accomplished.
Moving forward from that jail-related issue, Council Member Carol Frazey suggested a social media plan so that information would be presented to the community that is, “on the same message about the jail.”
A concern of Council Member Tyler Byrd’s was to make sure that in the upcoming community engagement opportunities, such as the Whatcom County Justice Updates event on September 23, that officials query community members as to the reasons they express they do or don’t prefer certain jail locations. He asserted there was a great deal of misinformation about “location,” referencing an example regarding the previously proposed jail in Ferndale.
While Council Member Byrd said that he was okay looking at downtown Bellingham as a location, he also conveyed that he didn’t think that locating the jail in Ferndale, “was a big issue,” minimizing the comments from community members at last year’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Listening Tours. On the Whatcom County website, the purpose of the listening tour was described in this way:
“The purpose of the listening tour is to provide citizens from every corner of Whatcom County the opportunity to share information, input, and ideas for improving Whatcom County’s criminal justice system.”
Additionally, Council Member Byrd proposed that the larger issue regarding the jail was the price tag of a quarter of a million dollars per bed. He wanted to make sure people knew that locations for the jail would only be based on locations that are already under consideration. He also stated that after the needs assessment, he wants to stick with the design firm (DLR Group) that had already drawn up plans for the past proposed Whatcom County Jail at the Ferndale location.
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