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Sides dig in as Wapato fight gets personal

Wheeler, officials at odds over best way to open jail
by: L.E. BASKOW, Bill Farver, top aide to Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler, has been spearheading Wheeler’s plan to open Wapato jail. Many county officials favor a competing proposal.

For Bill Farver and Ted Wheeler, the continuing saga of Wapato jail has been a less-than-excellent adventure. Wheeler, the Multnomah County chairman, aired a plan in early February to open the vacant $58 million facility, and since then opponents of his plan have increasingly accused him and top aide Farver of being insular, secretive and even sneaky. He and Farver, however, dismiss the attacks as tiresome but predictable, and Wheeler says he is not deterred. “This government took $60 million of the taxpayers’ money and built a jail,” he says. “The commissioners and the sheriff’s office and the corrections union represented to the public that they could operate that facility in a cost-effective and professional manner, and that’s what we damn well better do.” On Thursday, Wheeler says, he will unveil “hard numbers” comparing the costs of competing proposals to open Wapato. He then will ask the county board to approve his plan as part of the new budget that begins July 1, thereby allowing the facility to open in September. Wheeler has proposed opening Wapato not as a jail, but as a 150-bed secure treatment center — while cutting some 225 jail beds to do so. Because of that cut, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk, the sheriff’s office, local judges and public defenders have lined up behind an alternative plan that would offer treatment, work-release and more jail beds, not less. The hubbub matters because the showdown at the Wapato jail will not just determine the fate of a building that has become an embarrassing albatross, it could chart a path for the county’s entire criminal justice system for years to come. “This is a huge choice for the county, a huge public policy issue,” Farver says. “You don’t want to use a jail bed when you can have the same long-term effect with a less-expensive alternative.” Wheeler indicated to the Portland Tribune last Thursday that he’ll probably reject the counterproposal led by Schrunk, a decision he knows will lead to more dissension. “It’s little bit uncomfortable for me to be potentially at odds with the DA, and the sheriff and the corrections union,” Wheeler says. “People are going to have to be flexible in terms of the outcome.” Memo stirred resentment Wheeler was elected in 2006 having promised to open Wapato, but it was not until early this year that sheriff’s deputies learned, by accident, that there might be an actual plan. They obtained a Jan. 10 memo sent out by county Department of Community Justice manager John McVay that told co-workers that “DCJ will be opening Wapato Jail” and that the plan is to “offer some sort of treatment.” He warned DCJ employees that some sheriff’s employees didn’t know about the plan and that they “may have strong feelings” about it. In other words, the sheriff’s office would not be running Wapato; its more liberal rival agency — the DCJ, which oversees probation —would be taking it over. Confronted by Phil Anderchuk, president of the Multnomah County Corrections Deputies Association, Wheeler denied that any decision had been made. In February, shortly after embattled Sheriff Bernie Giusto signed over major aspects of his authority to Wheeler, the county chairman promptly announced a proposal essentially to do what McVay had described — and the union promptly cried foul. “Is he this Columbo-like figure, or is he the mastermind behind all of it? I don’t know,” corrections union official Darcy Bjork says of Wheeler. “On appearance, I believe he is suffering from operating in a vacuum, i.e., the vacuum created by Bill Farver. I don’t know who else he gets his information from.” Farver, the county’s chief operating officer, held the same role for former chairwoman Bev Stein. Though he is charged with steering the Wapato plan, he is the first to say that politics is not his strength: “I’m better at talking about the policy issues and the numbers.” “He’s introverted,” county Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey says. “Bill’s the kind of guy that pretty much stays in his office. … He’s got his head down and he’s doing stuff.” The plan that Farver is shepherding for Wheeler would take some $9 million from the sheriff’s budget to be used by DCJ for the treatment beds. Initially unveiled as a plan that would cost nothing besides some startup funds, county officials now agree it will require an additional cost of $5 million to $6 million to avoid closing hundreds more jail beds than Wheeler initially said. “Ted and I both knew all along there was some gap — we just didn’t know how much of a gap,” Farver says. Even as the price tag has grown, the Wapato plan that initially involved “some sort of treatment” has become somewhat more clear. Scott Taylor, head of the Department of Community Justice, says the 150 beds will be used for drug and alcohol treatment, for probation violation penalties, and for a pretreatment cooling-off period before shipping people off to less-expensive programs. Beyond that, the details are unclear. Taylor said that many of those beds will be used for people staying less than 60 days. However, one of his managers said the average stay for people passing through the treatment facility actually will be three months — as compared to the average 20-day jail bed stay — meaning only about 800 people will pass through the facility yearly. These details are important, Farver acknowledges, because without enough funding for follow-up assistance, counseling, housing and oversight, research shows that any money spent on treatment beds will be largely wasted. The county has budgeted $700,000 yearly for that follow-up. Farver says he trusts Taylor’s judgment that that figure will be enough. Both sides dig in The alternative plan pitched by law enforcement and backed by judges and public defenders has been billed as being no more expensive than Wheeler’s treatment-only plan. In an e-mail obtained under public records law, Chuck French, a deputy district attorney who worked on the proposal, complained that Farver has since been unfairly inflating the costs of the law enforcement proposal — which Farver denies. If Wapato is opened under Wheeler’s initial proposal, some money will be saved because the DCJ says that 75 of the 400 jail beds it’s been using for people who have violated probation are unnecessary — an assumption that is being folded into the costs for the plan. According to Taylor, research shows that issuing lesser penalties for violations will provide the same level of deterrent to reoffending. Christine Kirk, Giusto’s chief of staff, says that the criminal-justice research that Taylor cites is the exact reason why Wheeler should slow down the process — because studies show that expensive treatment beds work for some people, but aren’t necessary for others. “If you’re not putting the right mix of people in there, you’re not getting the most out of the system,” she said, adding that Wheeler’s desire to open Wapato by September “feels rushed in light of how expensive and important it is. … There’s a lot riding on it.” Commissioner Lisa Naito, however, thinks all the rush may be unnecessary — since the details can be worked out later this year, once a commitment is made to fund the opening of Wapato. That said, “I’m not going to cut other programs, if they’re working well, to make a political statement,” she says. “Treatment is desperately needed but so are secure jail beds. … I really just have more questions than there are answers.” Wheeler says people need to keep in mind that this is part of a long-term plan, and that opening Wapato will increase the odds that other jurisdictions will help fund the facility as a regional jail and treatment facility. While he admits he underestimated the difficulties he’d face, “I don’t think I was the only one,” Wheeler says. “No one’s ever dug down this far to get into the operational issues, the legal issues, the labor issues. … This is the first time anybody has gone down this path, and I will tell you that around every corner we find new challenges that need to be addressed. “I remain optimistic,” he adds, “that we’ll find a solution that works.”