King County Council Vice-Chair Jeanne Kohl-Welles
I have been honored to serve on the King County Council since January, 2016, after having been elected to succeed Councilmember Larry Phillips when he retired after 23 years of service. I was re-elected to my position in 2019, and truly love representing the people of District 4 and beyond on the County Council.
I have always worked collaboratively to achieve common-sense solutions on tough issues. And the toughest by far was serving as Chair of the Budget and Fiscal Management Committee in 2020 and 2021 — a position responsible for leading on all our budgets, including the biennial and supplemental budgets. Because of the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been an extremely challenging undertaking. In 2020, we passed a record eight budgets! These included the County’s 2021-2022 biennial budget, two omnibus supplemental budgets to the 2019-2020 biennial budget, and five emergency COVID supplemental budgets. All of these budgets were unanimously approved by my colleagues. In 2021, we approved four emergency COVID supplemental budgets in response to the ongoing pandemic as well as two omnibus supplemental budgets to the 2021-2022 biennial budget.
My goals as an elected leader continue to reflect equity and social and racial justice, as well as economic opportunity. These goals include addressing income equality and tax fairness; eliminating disproportionality in our juvenile and adult criminal legal systems; providing for affordable housing, health -- including mental and behavioral health -- and substance abuse services, and homelessness programs; expanding protections against domestic and sexual violence; working toward environmental justice and sustainability; increasing mobility and congestion relief; and electrifying our fleet and expanding our electric vehicle infrastructure.
Here are a few details on just some of the priorities and issues I have been working on:
Equity and racial/social justice
I am committed to continuing the fight for racial justice and equity, especially by promoting anti-racist policies that have the power to dismantle and disrupt racism in our region and beyond.
The brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others horrified the nation, and locally the murders of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, Tommy Le, and Che Taylor shocked and angered our community. These murders and other acts of violence and biases committed against BIPOC individuals across our country are constant reminders of the pain, anguish, and trauma that can occur in being a person of color in this country. Some live this daily; others bear witness and either passively or actively benefit from a system that reinforces white privilege and white supremacy. Since the calls for action in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, my colleagues and I on the Council have taken strong steps to effect needed change. Here are some of the highlights of our anti-racism agenda:
• The Council and the Board of Health proclaimed racism a public health crisis in King County.
• I co-sponsored the Youth Right to Counsel ordinance requiring sheriff’s deputies to ensure youth can speak to an attorney before waiving their constitutional rights.
• In 2020, as chair of the Budget and Fiscal Management Committee, I led the Council’s deliberations and passage of five budgets related to the pandemic, where we provided over $44 million in relief specifically for BIPOC communities, including housing and rental assistance, child care, culturally sensitive food security, digital equity, and programs addressing domestic violence.
• In the 2021-2022 Biennial Budget, again leading as Budget Chair, I led in allocating $40 million for BIPOC-specific funding, including $6 million for the Community Work Program (for adults) and Restorative Community Pathways (for juveniles)—programs that offer alternatives to incarceration and promote positive rehabilitation, $10 million as seed money for creating the White Center Community Center, and $10 million towards establishing participatory budgeting.
• So far in 2021, the Council continues to work hard for social justice and has approved over $130 million in spending to provide relief, recovery and advancement within the BIPOC populations throughout King County. We included $45 million for a community-led process to provide eviction relief (with more coming), nearly $27 million for a BIPOC Business & Economic Resiliency Fund, and over $10 million for an apprenticeship and local hire program, to name a few initiatives.
• King County and the City of Seattle announced a joint intention to repurpose $16 million from the King County Jail to community-based health and housing programs. I was involved in this work from the beginning. More information on that is available here.
Existing inequities have been exacerbated by the impacts of COVID, and we sought to utilize this unique influx of COVID-related federal funds to invest in these deeply impacted communities. We’ve worked with every hand on deck to advance equity work in King County.
We also laid the groundwork for more fundamental and structural change by proposing charter amendments to the voters. I was very pleased to have taken part along with Councilmembers Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay in speaking at community organizations’ forums on the ballot measures which King County voters approved on last November’s ballot, including:
• reforming the inquest process to ensure families of those killed by Sheriff’s deputies are provided legal representation
• granting subpoena power to the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight to aid in its investigations by updating the county’s charter
• making the King County Sheriff an appointed rather than elected position, and establishing a public safety advisory board, composed of representatives from communities most impacted as well as law enforcement representatives, that will help guide the establishment of the public safety department and the appointment process for a new sheriff
• specifying that inquests should be performed for deaths in the County’s jails and provide the family of the deceased with legal representation during the inquest process
These are now in the process of being implemented.
Presenting 1,000 cloth masks to Mike Tulee, executive director of United Indians of All Tribes at Daybreak Star in Magnolia.
In 2020, the Budget and Fiscal Management Committee, under my leadership, adopted five emergency COVID-19 supplemental budgets appropriating federal CARES Act and FEMA funding to respond to the evolving needs of our community. Budgets have included funding for food security; housing stability, such as rental assistance; homelessness services; digital equity; and programs assisting survivors of domestic violence and those with behavioral health and substance abuse challenges. We’ve also included funding for access to justice and continued public health funding, e.g., for Covid testing and vaccine administration. Plus, we appropriated funding for initial economic recovery efforts, such as for tourism and our arts, culture, science and heritage institutions and organizations.
In 2021, we are continuing to appropriate monies using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and FEMA funds from the federal government to address these pressing issues.
My staff and I delivered a total of 25,000 basic two-ply cloth masks in 2020 to a variety of senior centers, food banks and other non-profit organizations serving District Four, which were then distributed to people in need, especially those from vulnerable populations. You can read more about what we’ve been doing at the county level to help people get masks and stay safe in an Op-ed I wrote for the Queen Anne & Magnolia News by clicking here.
This has been a very stressful and trying time. It’s obvious that the best thing we can do to stay healthy and prevent the spread of the illness is to stay informed, wear masks when appropriate, and get vaccinated. Since the onset of the virus, I have been sending out regular e-news updates to help subscribers keep up with latest information. You can view each of these updates by clicking here. And, if you haven’t already, you can subscribe to these updates by clicking here.
Affordable housing and homelessness
Homelessness in King County continues to reach alarming numbers and the situation has been worsening with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing access to affordable housing and emergency support is a high priority for me, and one I continue to address as the Council’s Budget Chair.
While we continue to make large investments in improving our homelessness response system and building more affordable housing units, we also know that solving homelessness is more than just providing affordable housing. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are disproportionately represented in the rates of homeless in King County, and increasing income inequality, a lack of available affordable housing, displacement and gentrification, and a growing population, are some of the root causes of our crisis. Some who are experiencing homelessness may also need support with such challenges as substance use dependencies, mental and behavioral health challenges, reentry into the community post-incarceration, workforce readiness and access to affordable transportation.
In 2019, as then-Chair of the Council’s Health, Housing and Human Services Committee, I led the Council in the creation of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which aims to streamline our region’s homelessness response system across jurisdictional boundaries. This new regional, multidimensional authority includes elected leaders, regional stakeholders, representatives from county and city agencies, individuals with lived experience, members of the philanthropic community and experts in the field, and has the capacity to build a solid alliance across governments to reverse our homelessness crisis. Although it took a surprising and disappointing amount of time to get it stood up, it is all in place now and should be a real game changer.
At the end of June, Councilmembers approved by a 6-3 vote a transformative tenant protection package that I sponsored with Councilmembers Zahilay and Upthegrove. The package was headlined by capped move-in fees and late charges and required notice of rent increases over 3 percent. The new ‘just cause’ eviction criteria and tenant protections are for unincorporated King County only. The legislation is a powerful and fair tenant protections package that will keep individuals and families in unincorporated King County housed and stable, while respecting landlords’ rights to collect rent and impose fair evictions when needed. More details about the legislation is available here.
Additionally, in the 2021-2022 Biennial Budget, we included a relatively small sales tax increase of 0.01% that will allow the county to create permanent supportive housing for up to 2,000 people suffering from chronic homelessness. The approved measure, referred to as Health Through Housing, includes bonding against proceeds generating $340 million to purchase disused existing hotels, motels, and nursing homes to provide housing quickly for those who need it most. The first hotel purchased under this program is the Inn at Queen Anne, a hotel that has been housing folks experiencing homelessness since the beginning of the pandemic. More info about that purchase is in The Seattle Times here. As of July 2021, a total of eight properties have been purchased throughout King County, including two more in the northern part of District Four. More information about these additional purchases is available here and here.
I remain committed to addressing climate change head-on and approaching this crisis as a public health emergency. As a County we must continue to lead on this issue. Using an equity lens, I am continuing to promote policies to achieve environmental justice so that we can protect our front-line communities that bear a disproportionate burden of the negative impacts of the climate crisis. As such, I am pleased to work hand-in-hand with Councilmember Rod Dembowski who serves as the chair of the Council’s Mobility and Environment Committee.
The Council approved the County’s new 2020 Strategic Climate Action Plan (SCAP) earlier this year, which includes cutting greenhouse gas emissions countywide in half by the end of the decade, a stronger focus on climate justice, and preparing the region for climate impacts. This is one of the most aggressive government plans to combat climate change and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a region-wide scale, reducing countywide greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. It also accelerates the County’s commitment to reducing emissions from its operations by 80% by 2030, 20 years sooner than called for in the previous plan.
I sponsored legislation that amends the King County Code to require electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure in association with certain development activities in unincorporated King County. The legislation would also set standards for the installation and placement of that infrastructure and only pertains to new development, as we anticipate that there will be more and more electric vehicles on the road in the coming years. That legislation was passed by the Council in July 2021.
In 2019, my legislation was passed by the Council to expedite the electrification of King County Metro Transit buses and other county vehicles. Read about the legislation in this article from Crosscut.The County also authorized Metro’s purchase of up to 120 battery-electric buses and the Council passed legislation to speed up Metro’s transition to all-electric fleet. Also, this year, Metro retired the last of its diesel-only buses. The transition is underway!
Access to transit
Councilmember Kohl-Welles being interviewed in front of one of Metro’s brand-new, battery electric, zero-emission buses
I will continue to work hard to ensure our residents and workers, especially those historically left behind, have access to reliable and affordable transit in King County. Our region continues to experience enormous growth. But with growth come major challenges. People who have long lived in certain areas are being pushed out as the cost of living rises. But some of the best jobs remain in Seattle, making it a challenge to commute affordably and rapidly. Funding public transit in innovative and equitable ways will not only help reduce congestion on our roads, but also help communities stay connected and make it possible for people to have access to good jobs and education so they can achieve their fullest potential.
The major transit-related update that may impact District Four residents is the North Link Mobility Plan that we recently approved, the new transit plan that will affect service provision in North Seattle, Shoreline, and other areas. Since new Link Light Rail stations in the University District, Roosevelt, and Northgate will be opening in September 2021, several bus routes are being adjusted or eliminated. For more info on how those changes affect you, check out Metro’s website or this article in The Seattle Times.
Here are some of the transit-related achievements of mine:
• A very low-income fare pilot to provide fare-free rides for our most vulnerable and struggling community members. You can read more about this program by clicking here.
• New fare enforcement policies making fare enforcement less punitive and disproportionately harmful to low-income riders and our most vulnerable residents. Click here to learn more.
• Working with Councilmember Rod Dembowski to make sure that free masks are available on all King County Metro buses.
• Waiving enforcement of Metro bus fares when Metro activates its Emergency Snow Network to encourage people to use transit and avoid driving during severe snowstorms (passed in 2019).
• Funding for a study to explore implementing a Downtown Seattle to Ballard water taxi route. This is an important follow-up study that was recommended in an initial report of potential water taxi routes that was released in 2015. Because of the pandemic, any action that may be taken is currently on hold.
Fighting for orcas and improved water quality
Our livelihood and the livelihood of marine life in Puget Sound, especially our Southern Resident killer whales, are threatened by water pollution from a variety of sources. We must be proactive to mitigate this damage and keep our waters clean.
In the 2019-2020 biennial budget I was able to secure funding for a study on whether and how wastewater affects juvenile salmon, Southern Resident killer whales and marine life in Puget Sound. That study should help provide more information on how we can improve our wastewater treatment processes to improve water quality. Sampling for this is currently underway.
We recently approved a $65 million investment in the West Point Treatment Center to address issues with the power supply connectivity. Executive Constantine also signed a two-year emergency declaration that allows the Wastewater Treatment Division to quickly purchase services and equipment to expedite these upgrades. In the past 20 years, there have been 15 power-supply related stormwater spills at West Point while the plant was operating at full- or almost full-capacity. Eight of them occurred in the last five years. Addressing the underlying power supply issues will be an investment in our region’s clean water for many years to come.
This page is just a snapshot into the work I’ve been doing over the past several years. Some of our other big legislative successes include:
• Banning the use of facial recognition technology by King County agencies, including the King County Sheriff’s Office, due to concerns about misidentification, racial bias in the technology, and infringement on civil liberties. (2021)
• Examining the enforcement of the Bicycle Helmet Law in King County as part of this year’s work plan of the King County Board of Health and how that may have a disproportionate impact on our unhoused residents. (2021)
• Fighting human trafficking in our region by instituting regional public awareness campaigns, instituting trainings for Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare drivers to recognize the signs of trafficking, examining the scope of labor trafficking in King County, and more. (2016-2021)
• An overhaul of the County’s Anti-Discrimination and Harassment policies, procedures and trainings to expand the conduct that constitutes inappropriate behavior. (2018)