Candidates talk jail, voter districts at Birch Bay forum

Forum_IF-4By Ian Ferguson

With the November general elections coming up, a crowd gathered at the Birch Bay Bible Community Church October 1 to meet and hear from candidates for local government at the annual Birch Bay Candidates Forum.

Twelve candidates showed up to talk about the issues and answer questions. The forum was co-sponsored by the Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce, the Blaine Chamber of Commerce, the Birch Bay Bible Community Church and The Northern Light. Terry Terry moderated the forum, reading questions that were previously emailed to candidates as well as questions submitted by the audience.

Due to the lengthy responses from the many candidates in attendance, we’ve chosen to print the responses to two questions that generated the most debate among candidates: how should county council voter districts be organized, and what should be done about the new jail? Next week, we’ll run questions for the Port of Bellingham, Blaine school board and fire protection district 21 candidates, and their responses from the forum.

In attendance:

Whatcom County Council:

Bruce Ayers – District 1 position B

Todd Donovan – District 1 position B

Kathy Kershner – District 2 position B

Satpal Sidhu – District 2 position B

Barbara Brenner – District 3 position B (unopposed)

Whatcom County Executive:

Joy Gilfilen

Jack Louws

Whatcom County Sheriff:

Bill Elfo

Port of Bellingham district 3 commissioner:

Robert Briscoe

Gary S. Jensen

Blaine school board 

director district 3:

Joan Lotze

Fire protection district 21 commissioner position 1:

John Crawford

Did not attend:

Blaine school board 

director district 3

Russ Schutt

Fire protection district 21 commissioner position 1

Dean Whitney

Question 1 (read by Terry Terry): Propositions from the charter review commission and from the county council could have a profound impact on the way we vote and the shape of the county council we elect. Two important propositions would change the way the county councilmembers are elected.

Proposed amendment number one by the charter review commission would require district-only voting for the county council members in their current three districts. If passed, there would be county councilmembers in each district, voted on only by the district residents, plus one at-large position that could continue to be selected by voters from the entire county.

Proposition nine is proposed by county council. It would redraw the electoral map to create five council districts instead of the current three. If passed, there would be one council position in each of the five districts plus two at-large positions that would be nominated without regard to district. [Editor’s note: Currently, all Whatcom County voters elect all seven county councilmembers, regardless of the district they represent. The three districts each have two representatives, and there is a seventh at-large councilmember.]

Barbara Brenner: I had the ability to sit through both types of processes, countywide and district-only. We’ve always had countywide, which means you get to vote for seven people. It means they have to answer to all of you. You have to live in the district, but you get answers from everybody. Forum_IF-1

The thing that doesn’t work, as soon as district-only passed, almost all the council members started saying, “I don’t care, it’s not in my district.” It turns into the same kind of stalemate problems they have at the state and federal level. We’re a local government. I don’t think we need to cut ourselves up any more.

Todd Donovan: I was actually on the charter review commission, which was a fabulous process. Almost every issue, people on both sides of the aisle – left, right, conservative, liberal – we found common ground. We could compromise and agree to not disagree.

But the districting thing was one issue where we couldn’t really move. I’m a fan of the at-large system. I agree with what Barbara said; I think it gives better representation. But we heard from a lot of people who wanted districts. They didn’t want to be in a district, if they’re in Lynden, with part of Bellingham, or in Birch Bay, with part of Bellingham – every district having part of Bellingham.

So I offered a compromise proposal where we would have five districts that would be elected by district in the general election and two at-large to kind of blend the at-large and the districts, but neither party liked that.

The council has put on this five district thing that would still be like the at-large and the districts, but at least you would have five districts and there would be a specific member, say from the Lynden-Sumas area, or from the Blaine-Birch Bay area.

Kathy Kershner: Just like we in Whatcom County don’t like  Seattle city residents making our laws and rules that affect us without a voice in that process, I think in our local elections we have some of the same dynamics, where we’ve got rural and agricultural communities that are not feeling like they’re getting a voice on our county council.

So I’m in favor of voting by district. Full disclosure: the two races that I’ve actually run, I’ve garnered the majority of support from the district that I’m running to represent, so it would make sense that the district I’m running to represent, that if they vote for me to represent them, that I should be seated on the council. That’s what we would get with district-only voting.

The five districts, I think, is a complicated stunt to try to continue to maintain a progressive majority in our county council politics. So I don’t support it.

Satpal Sidhu: I do support five districts. Now here’s a clear example: Kathy [Kershner] moved to Lynden a few months back, OK, a year ago. I have lived there 30 years. The issue is that the day she moved in, she claimed entitlement, that because Sam Crawford went off, that she should be appointed. You have to qualify for that.

The second thing is, saying, “You deserve a voice on county council,” it really shows the partisanship. The council is not a partisan body; the council is there to solve problems. The only voice missing is the voice of partisanship. I have lived there 30 years, and I work with farmers. I represent their voice. Her appeal is only to certain people, but when we are on the council there are issues that affect everyone; they affect Bellingham, they affect the county and vice-versa.

If the person has very narrow interests, the person’s whole vision is going to be so narrow. We don’t want this – we’re not as big as Seattle.

Joy Gilfilen: I’m not running for county council, but I’m a voter of Whatcom County and it’s been interesting; since I’ve been looking at this subject, I attended many of the charter review meetings, I attended the county council debates when they decided to go and recommend five-district voting.

If I had to choose one or the other I would do five-district voting. But it’s interesting to me, as I’ve been talking to people in this county to find out why it is that the county people feel like they’re not being heard. They aren’t. The reason they are not is because of something completely different than what people think.

When you live inside an incorporated city, whether it is Bellingham, Blaine, Lynden, Ferndale – any of our seven cities – you get to elect your city mayor, and your city councilmen. As soon as you live in the unincorporated area, you don’t get to vote for that, so you get half as much representation as everyone else.

And it’s not about Bellingham. It’s about incorporated city people get more stuff, so I think the real problem is an overload in the executive branch, not either one of these problems.

Bruce Ayers: I’m in a tough spot, because if I win this election I’ll be representing district 1 but I probably will not win district 1. It’ll have to come from voters from district 2 and 3. At the same time, I have to say I support fair-district voting with the three districts. Because what’s happened in the past, and this really isn’t partisan, because we’ve had conservative members represent the first district that weren’t elected by the first district. Now we have councilmembers that are elected in the second district, but didn’t get a majority vote by the voters in the second district.

The concern is if you didn’t get the majority vote, then why are you representing those people who didn’t vote for you? We recognize that Whatcom County is a very diverse community. We have to have representation that represents that diversity. So when a councilmember is elected to the second district, but doesn’t win the majority vote in the second district, people feel like they are not represented. And I feel like it’s important.

We have two, two and two and an at-large position. I think it’s important that each geographical area in Whatcom County is properly represented.

Jack Louws: I’ve been a student of Whatcom County politics for a long time, and I’ve always looked at it as, it’s not the form of government that we have, it’s the quality of the people that we have in the positions that affect the government.

Whether that be a city manager, a city councilmember, appointed mayor, elected mayor; whether it be county commissioners or executive, with a charter government such as ours, if we get the right people in who are working for the common good, things run well. If we get the wrong people in, or we get people who are tangling with each other because of the minor issues, we end up with challenges.

From my end of it, I’m not necessarily worried about it as much as making sure that we have the right people in the position to move our common goals forward. Because we are one people, we’re all part of a county, we’re represented well, and at the end of the day, whatever we decide, we need to move forward and work together.

Question 2: The need to replace the crumbling jail facility is acknowledged by all the small cities and the city of Bellingham general council. Voting yes on prop 2015-1 would result in the much-needed new replacement jail in the next four years. Alternately, what are the consequences of kicking the can down the road yet again? Are there any advantages?

Sheriff Bill Elfo: I think the can’s been kicked down the road on this once too often. The jail is falling apart. It’s literally crumbling down around us. In terms of human dignity, to put people in there and keep them in there, putting that aside and the risk of endangering human life of the staff, deputies, nurses and inmates in there, we have a huge liability. We’re put on notice that this facility is in such bad shape, and it’s been reviewed by professional consultants, citizens’ committees and others.

I view it as a human rights violation. It needs to be replaced, and if not we’re going to carry the burden, and we’re doing something that is ethically and morally wrong by continuing to keep people in those conditions.

Jack Louws: I agree with the sheriff’s assessment that if we don’t move forward with this, we need to lower the population in that jail just for life safety purposes. It needs to be done and that’s one of the direct consequences.

The other consequence of not getting this project completed is that national statistics are indicating that construction costs are going to go up 13 percent in the next two years. If we would have completed this in 2005 or 2006 when I believe we should have, and there’s nothing that I can do about that, the jail would have cost us approximately $60 million. The same project is $100 million now, and if we kick the can for another 5-10 years, it’s liable to be another $50-75 million more than it is now.

That’s why I’m encouraging everybody to vote yes on proposition 1.

Bruce Ayers: As you know I live with this issue tonight. I think it’s important to recognize that when people say we need the new jail and then they say, “but I want more alternative programming and behavioral programming,” there’s a disconnect.

I have a disabled daughter. I understand disability, and I understand the disability community in many ways. Right now, Whatcom County spends about $15 million [per year] on teen court and drug court and mental health court, alternatives to jail and recidivisms. The [proposed annual] jail budget is about $13 million. The idea that we’re not doing any of these other programs is just wrong. It’s not about one or the other. It’s both. We have to replace the jail, and we have to continue to look for alternatives to incarceration. It’s a combined effort.

If that 2/10 of 1 percent tax passes, it’s four years until we have a new facility. It’s time to get moving.

Joy Gilfilen: I’m in complete opposition to all of these opinions, and the reason is because I’ve just spent five years of volunteer time doing deep, deep, deep research in the streets of Whatcom County and across this nation looking at the problem of prison reform.

We need jail reform badly in Whatcom County. Right now the law and justice budget, if you look at the blue part of this chart, that’s what we’re paying, taxpayers, to fund the law and justice system. If you look at this side, this is what you’re going to pay in the next few years for the law and justice system. The problem is jail reform.

I’m president of the restorative community coalition, and we have submitted 15 ways that our law and justice system is out of order in Whatcom County. Yes, police bias is real. The hard truths conversation that the FBI director said needs to happen in the United States does need to happen here in Whatcom County.

Our coalition has tried for five years to have a conversation about economic alternatives in Whatcom County so that we can divert people out of that law and justice system before they ever go in in the first place, and we have been shut down at every level of the conversation. The public who asked for scoping conversation were never addressed in the scoping hearing. The fact that we asked for public hearings on the purchase of that property was not acknowledged. The fact that we asked for full accountability of where our money has gone – I am not satisfied that we have matched it, so we wrote a report to explain how we could do economic development, how we could do the jail and how we could build community safety all at once.

It took me five years. They paid $2 million and we don’t have a good needs assessment on the jail right now.

Barbara Brenner: I haven’t done a few years of research, but I’ve lived on the streets. I’ve lived on the streets for a number of years. I can’t even go into everything that I’ve seen with my own eyes. And I’ve spent a lot of time on this proposal too.

I am convinced that it’s going to be a good proposal, but even more than that, I’m convinced that we have an incredible sheriff, who I trust with my life. I just recently got legislator of the year from the sheriff’s guild, and I mean, me? I really believe that people understand the need, and to say that some kind of research or another claims that there isn’t a need here, and that we’re not doing anything or we’re not doing enough, it’s just not real. I see all the restorative justice services that we are providing. Sure we can do more. We are going to do more.

Kathy Kershner: I’ve been working on helping our community build a replacement jail since 2010 with my very first meeting when our administration sat me down and said how badly we needed a new jail, and they took me on a tour of our jail.

It was horrendous. It is horrendous. It’s not gotten better. Some of the first actions I took on the council were to order parts off of eBay because they no longer made the parts to replace the locks on the doors at the time. And so that’s where we were getting our parts, was on eBay.

I heard from a mother of a corrections deputy who works in the jail, and she is concerned every day for her son’s life as he goes and works in that horrible, dilapidated jail. Also, I think about the women that spend time in the jail as inmates. They’re crammed into one holding cell. Thirty women are sharing a box. They’ve come up with creative ideas for how they’ll all take a shower and share warm water. It’s pathetic.

Todd Donovan: I agree that we want this jail funded and I agree with what Jack said. I wish we could have done it before we passed a tax in 2004, and a lot of people thought that most of that money was going to go to design and start building the new jail, but we needed it to operate the current jail. We just needed the money for that.

So now we’re in this awkward position where I don’t think it’s about kicking the can down the road for another 5-10 years, because the county got kicked off to the side this year, we came up a few months short of getting a deal this year, and now we have to go to the taxpayers and say, “We want you to vote to raise your taxes this year, we’re not quite sure what we’re going to do with the money, we don’t quite have the plan yet, but trust us.”

I trust a lot of these people, but I really wish we could have gotten it settled before we went to the voters and said, “This is exactly what we’re going to build, and this is what’s going to be included.” It really would have only taken until February to get all that on the ballot. I’m not going to be a county councilmember who is going to ask you to raise your taxes and then promise something later.

Sheriff Bill Elfo: I’d like to respond to two things. We do know the size of the jail. The jail planner recommended 640 beds. We believe we can do better in this community by making use of preventive mental health and addiction services, so we’re proposing a jail of 521 beds if Bellingham participates. If Bellingham does not participate, they want to take their money and find another option or build their own city jail, then it will be approximately 390 beds.

If I can add something else to what Ms. Gilfilen said, she was kind enough to forward me a copy of that report. We have an obligation to Whatcom County to protect people and keep them safe, particularly the most vulnerable – the women and children who are victims of domestic violence crimes, for example. We have some people who need to be in jail, and not prosecuting them and putting them in jail is totally irresponsible in my opinion. We’ve known from studies that these pro-arrest policies have driven down homicides and they’ve driven down abuse.

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