Roots of Wapato: the $100 million jail fiasco
A couple of weeks ago — more than 15 years after retiring as Multnomah County's sheriff — Dan Noelle had been taking in breathtaking scenery in The Needles, Utah, with his wife, Portland's former police chief Rosie Sizer, about 1,000 miles from their Oregon home.
Then he saw it: an April 19 county press release in his email inbox announcing the county's sale of the Wapato jail for $5 million. Notably, the official statement blamed Noelle by name for the $100 million fiasco of a facility that had been built and never used.
Noelle, a Portland ex-cop who served two terms as elected sheriff, sounded puzzled that long after retirement, he is now portrayed as the villain of the Wapato saga.
"If they're going to blame me, they at least ought to be honest about what happened," he said shortly after reading the release. "It was a different time and different circumstances."
As Wapato enters a new phase, the question of what happened and what lessons can be learned from it is timely. Interviews and a review of Wapato's history and news coverage from The Oregonian and the Portland Tribune show how circumstances, perceptions and politics evolved over time.
Over the last year, county officials have tried to defuse controversy over Wapato by saying current leaders merely inherited the problem.
The recent press release went further, singling out Noelle as years ago pushing for a jail that was eventually deemed unnecessary.
Crime rates went down after the bond was approved in 1996, the release said.
"Nevertheless, Sheriff Dan Noelle persisted," the county release said. "The then-Sheriff Noelle wanted a 90-acre detention campus and argued the county would need 4,000 jail beds by the year 2000."
In reality, things were more complicated. Though violent crime went down, property crime rates continued to go up, and the state had passed a law transferring thousands of state inmates to local jails, fueling the call for Wapato.
Locally, the public was transfixed by news coverage about how thousands of convicted and accused criminals were being released back onto the streets of Portland without jail time.
In August 1995, the county's liberal top-elected official, Chair Bev Stein, stressed to an Oregonian reporter the need for vastly more jail beds, despite a shortage of funds.
"We may need to build more capacity than we have money to operate,'' Stein said at the time.
Meanwhile, talk of a new jail bond and other tax measures was used by conservatives to push a new statewide measure limiting property taxes.
"That's only going to be fuel for our initiative,'' said one activist, Bill Sizemore, of the local bond efforts.
In March 1996 the Multnomah County board voted unanimously to put a jail bond measure on the ballot. It passed.
But voters statewide also approved the first of two measures capping property taxes, slashing the county budget by 18 percent, according to one report.
Officials keep pushing
The county had a proven record of approving levies to support jail operations, however, and a county consultant's projections supported Noelle's belief that the county should double its jail space.
With inmates being released early from jail at a rate of 300 per month, County Chair Stein and her colleagues in 1999 unanimously approved building a facility for 300 drug and alcohol treatment beds at Wapato, along with 225 jail beds.
Then in 2001, Portland City Council members implicitly voted in favor of the jail by rejecting a land-use appeal by the St. Johns Neighborhood Association, which wanted to stop construction. "We need this jail," City Commissioner Jim Francesconi told The Oregonian. "It's about time voters got what they paid for."
Plans to seek voter approval for a new jail operating levy, however, were postponed, and Noelle retired while urging the county to open the jail.
A 2004 Oregonian editorial lamented "the Wapato fiasco," saying that instead of having pushed the jail for years, "maybe we should have been questioning whether it was wise to go ahead" with construction. But it said the "county still needs those beds ... Burglars, auto thieves and other property criminals now seem to have the run of the place."
Since then, Wapato has popped up regularly in public debate. At one point, county officials looked to lease space at the jail in order to open it. Competing plans to open Wapato surfaced in 2008 from the county's then-Chair Ted Wheeler and District Attorney Mike Schrunk.
But none of it happened.
Meanwhile, Oregon voters became more liberal. The Oregon Legislature and the county board embraced the philosophy that incarceration often causes more harm than it prevents. New county policies and state laws cut jail time and reduced the number of inmate beds needed.
Jim Carlson, a former Multnomah criminal justice analyst who studied jail policies, agrees that building the jail should have been avoided. But he said Noelle, as a jail administrator, was on the receiving end of a lack of vision from fragmented state and local leaders who set sentencing policies.
"It was not Noelle's fault," Carlson said. "It was a failure of the system."
Stein, the former chair, faults Noelle for his primary role in pushing projections that didn't bear out. And she laments the power of an elected sheriff, who didn't have to balance the county budget, at a time when the law-and-order lobby was strong. But she agrees with Carlson: the system failed.
"I mean, I'm at fault too," she said. "If I could have stopped it, I would have. But I couldn't figure out how to get the votes."
Chuck French, a former senior county prosecutor who studied the issue, contends that opening the jail was possible, but county leaders chose liberal sentencing policies that fuel Portland's high rate of property crimes today.
The jail, he said, "was made unnecessary after the fact by policy and political decisions by county government that everyone carries the burden for."
Former county Commissioner Lisa Naito said she's glad the county has abandoned lock-them-up policies. But Noelle is not at fault, she added. "He was responding to the facts as we knew them then."
Noelle, for his part, said, "I understand they changed the policies after I left to not house as many inmates and not have the drug and alcohol beds [once slated for Wapato]."
But he said he wished the county would provide the public with the context for why he and other local leaders pushed for the jail.
"For them to try to blame me for building a jail, that kind of pisses me off," he said. "But I'll get over it."
Wapato future unclear
Although discussions are underway about using the former Wapato jail for the homeless, it could also be torn down and redeveloped for industrial uses.
Multnomah County sold the property to developer Marty Kehoe for $5 million on April 19. But developer Jordan Schnitzer promptly bought it from Kehoe for the same price. Schnitzer, a philanthropist who has helped save senior housing projects in the past, then let developer Homer Williams study whether Wapato could be a homeless shelter and service center.
Schnitzer told Oregon Public Broadcasting he arranged to purchase Wapato from Kehoe before the county sale was complete.
Williams founded Oregon Harbor of Hope, a nonprofit organization that has been seeking to open a large homeless shelter and service center. He offered to buy Wapato for $7 million a few days before the county accepted Kehoe's offer.
Don Mazziotti, the nonprofit's director, said a consultant will inspect Wapato in coming weeks and determine whether it's worth doing a more in-depth feasibility study of using it for the homeless.