News

Committee to examine Clallam courthouse security

by AMANDA WINTERS
Sequim Gazette

While Clallam County’s Superior Court judges are requesting that a committee look into security issues at the courthouse, other law and justice officials are pushing for the county commissioners to make the case for a sales-tax ballot measure.

 

Superior Court Judge Ken Williams, Sheriff Bill Benedict, Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Kelly and juvenile services director Peter Peterson were among the county staff to sit down with commissioners Mike Chapman, Jim McEntire and Mike Doherty at an April 17 work session.

 

Williams said it is time for a committee of interested parties to begin an analysis and discussion of what the future should hold for the courthouse as it relates to cost and security.

 

“We have plans in place for a tsunami, we have plans in place for an earthquake and we have plans in place for a terrorist attack,” he said, adding it’s time to have a plan in place for courthouse security.

No plans

An attack earlier this year at the Gray’s Harbor County courthouse injured a sheriff’s deputy and a judge, bringing issues of courthouse security to the forefront.

 

“If we have a shooting in the building, what do we do?” Judge George Wood asked the commissioners. “I don’t think it’s enough to say, ‘Law enforcement will be there.’”

 

Benedict said his office and the Port Angeles Police Department are trained to respond to shootings and emergency situations.

 

“By and large if there’s someone loose in the building shooting, common sense will prevail,” he said, adding he doesn’t think a one-size-fits-all plan would work.

 

Later in the meeting, Benedict said he’s not convinced there’s a problem with courthouse security. He asked how many judges have been killed in their chambers in the last 20 years as opposed to how many law enforcement officers have been killed in the streets.

 

“Someone could walk in with a gun and start shooting, but they don’t,” he said.

 

McEntire said he thought it was a worthy topic for a committee to examine but he had concerns about their findings reaching the public.

 

“One aspect, and I see that the press is in the room and this is a good time to say it, we need to find if there are ways in the Public Records Act or some other doctrine about having sensitive information that we develop in the course of this conversation with ourselves kept to ourselves,” he said.

 

McEntire directed Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nicols to look into the Washington State Public Records act and see how the county can keep information on courthouse security out of the public eye.

 

“We don’t want to be telling the bad guys, quote unquote, where our specific vulnerabilities are,” he said.

On taxes

Benedict expressed concern over the budget deficits expected when union concessions expire at the end of 2013.

 

Since the countywide Law and Justice Council, which includes municipal law enforcement leaders, as well as county leaders, hasn’t been able to come to an agreement on a proposed tax measure, Benedict pushed for the commissioners to decide themselves whether or not to propose the tax.

 

Doherty said the commissioners would be able to make a better case for a tax if the experts, meaning law and justice officials, developed material showing why they needed a tax increase to fund their departments.

 

Benedict said he isn’t a tax expert and doesn’t want the responsibility.

 

“I’m the sheriff,” he said. “It’s not my job to find money for my organization.”

 

Kelly said as a county, it must be decided how they will deal with budget issues and avoid bankruptcy.

 

County Administrator Jim Jones said law and justice departments account for 79 percent of the county budget and have increased an average of 8 percent annually over the past 10 years.

 

“Passing the tax won’t solve the problems for very long,” he said.

 

The proposed tax would raise $1.8 million, which would at best only buy the departments two years before they were in the hole again, he said.

 

“The solution has to come from the Legislature recognizing counties have an unfair share of the cost of felony justice,” he said.

 

Reach Amanda Winters at awinters@sequimgazette.com.

 

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