If county leaders don't lead the process, we'll never get thereClatsop County has enjoyed a very good year. That is the view of County Commission Chairwoman Helen Westbrook. We would concur.
In her year-end assessment, issued last Thursday, Westbrook mentions accomplishments such as the Sunset Beach property sale, development of a long-term financial plan and progress toward a resolution of wetlands problems that have blocked construction of a community corrections Transition Center. There was also the hiring of Scott Derickson as county administrator.
For all of these accomplishments, there is an important omission in her assessment. The county commission chairwoman makes no mention of the county jail.
Over the past year, the commission has been virtually silent on the matter.
The history of jail discussions over the past decade is not pretty. Leadership from the commission or the county sheriff has been uneven and fitful, therefore ineffective. The county commission in 2000 hastily asked voter approval for a jail bond, but with no location named. There was little practical organization behind that campaign, and it failed at the polls.
It is no secret that there has been disagreement between commissioners and the chief law enforcement officers of the county, who are Circuit Judge Paula Brownhill, District Attorney Josh Marquis and Sheriff John Raichl. Marquis is the most articulate on the need for a new jail. Some commissioners believe that alternatives in sentencing can relieve the burden on the jail.
Anyone who has toured the jail knows its inadequacy. It is a building designed to fit yesterday's technology and expectations. Furthermore, the options for the jail's expansion or remodeling are virtually nil.
The need for leadership that has existed for the past 10 years is unchanged. This county needs a systematic discussion that is led by the county commission. The discussion should engage, rather than alienate, the chief law enforcement officers. The commission must also engage civic leaders and taxpayers in this discussion, because there will be an eventual need to pass a jail bond. Location must be agreed upon before there is another attempt to go to the voters.
Building a case and a campaign for a new jail in any circumstance is difficult, because the jail has no constituency except for the law enforcement officers who are painfully aware of criminals who are released for lack of space to incarcerate them.
We applaud the progress of which Commission Chairwoman Westbrook writes. The opening of the Transition Center will be an important event, telling us whether pressure will be relieved from the jail.
But in the end, our jail is slowly becoming an antique. We would not suggest that the commission should quickly compose a jail proposal. It may take years. But we must begin to have a more coherent discussion than has taken place. We hope that in 2004 the need for a new jail will find its way to the commission's agenda.