After listening to more than two hours of public comments in opposition, the Lynnwood City Council voted Monday to approve the construction contract for the controversial Community Justice Center project.
The $69-million project includes redeveloping the city’s police department, jail and municipal courts and expanding to partner with the neighboring Community Health Center to provide substance abuse and rehabilitation treatments. The council voted last month to delay voting on the contract in response to criticism from the community.
At its Sept. 13 business meeting, the council voted 6-1 — with Councilmember Ruth Ross voting no– to authorize the mayor to execute a $56.3 million contract with Forma Construction. The agreement also allows for change orders up to 10% of the contract amount.
The vote came two months to the day after the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion, a Black woman who died in the jail. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled her death was by suicide. An outside investigation was conducted by the Kirkland Police Department, which revealed that custody officers did not check on Tesfatsion during the three hours prior to her death, violating the department’s policy to check on inmates every 60 minutes.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, dozens of community members — including members of Tesfatsion’s family — spoke against approving the contract.
“Nobody is supposed to lose their life when they go to jail,” said Genet Tesfatsion, Tirhas’ sister. “That’s the place where you’re supposed to feel safe. That’s where the officers are, and they’re supposed to protect you.”
Plans for the project have been in the making for years since multiple space study needs determined that the department, jail and municipal court have outgrown their current facility. A key feature of the project includes expanding the jail — which currently has 46 beds — to include 120 beds. Most of the project will be funded by bonds and the rest will come from the city’s criminal justice tax. The city also intends to contract jail beds out to other law enforcement agencies to help offset the facility’s cost.
Speaking in favor of the project, Council Vice President Jim Smith said the Community Justice Center aims to address all of the community’s concerns regarding mental health by providing an overall better facility
“It includes modernizing our police department, it includes modernizing our jail and providing services that it’s currently not up to what our standard would be,” he said. “We want it to be better and this would do that.”
Councilmember Shannon Sessions pointed out that the council unanimously agreed to move the project forward for years, believing it was the best option for the city. According to Sessions, the Community Justice Center has been regarded as a “model project” for addressing the need for more rehabilitation services in the city.
“(The project) already, by itself, is the right thing to do,” she said.
However, Councilmember Ross said she could no longer support the project after hearing testimony from dozens of people urging the council to vote against the contract.
“We beg people to come and talk to us, we beg them, and when they do, we have a responsibility to respond,” she said.
Two other contracts associated with the Community Justice Center project were approved by a 6-1 vote — with Ross voting against both. One was for special construction inspection consultant services in the amount of $187,282 and the other for geotechnical construction testing services for $131,722.
The council also voted to adopt a resolution committing to building a proposed Community Recovery Center on the same site as the Community Justice Center. Last month, Mayor Nicola Smith assembled a task force — which included State Rep. Lauren Davis, Police Chief Jim Nelson and several others — to explore ways to offer more behavioral health services to those in need.
At its Sept. 7 work session, the council was briefed on a proposal to reallocate some of the 120 beds initially designated for the new jail to a separate multilevel facility located on the site. The 12,750-square-foot recovery center would be located adjacent to the jail and offer emergency behavioral health services.
There is no final cost for the recovery center at this time. During the council work session, Davis explained the recovery center could receive funding from the state, and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers has said he plans to include $3 million for the facility in his 2022 budget.
–By Cody Sexton