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 some of the priorities and issues I have been working on:
Racial Equity and 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. Acts of violence and bias committed against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and Other People of Color), low-income, and poor individuals across our country are constant reminders of the pain, anguish, and trauma that can occur among people of color and the poor 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. On the King County Council, we are continuing to work to advance an anti-racist agenda in our policies and procedures. Knowing the disproportionate impact of the criminal legal system on our communities of color, many of our initiatives are directed towards the criminal legal system. Here are some steps we’ve taken:
• 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, in which 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 developing 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.
• In 2021, the Council continued to work hard for social justice and approved over $130 million in spending to provide relief, recovery, and advancement, specifically within the BIPOC populations throughout King County. Most of the federally-funded Covid programs focus on underserved areas and historically marginalized communities. From that, we included $432 million for eviction relief and rental assistance across the county, of which $45 million was specifically for a model based on a BIPOC community-led process. Additionally, we allocated nearly $27 million for a BIPOC Business & Economic Resiliency Fund, over $10 million for an apprenticeship and local hire program, and $2 million to combat youth gun violence. We also provided $9.4 million directly to the Office of Equity and Social Justice (now the Office of Equity, Racial & Social Justice) to support the Coalition Against Hate and Bias, ADA, ethnic media grants, digital equity, and technical assistance for CBOs.
• In the 2023-2024 biennial budget, I worked with CM Dembowski to restrict funding from the King County Executive until transparency is improved around past, pending, and future inquests into law enforcement-related deaths.
• In the 2023-2024 Biennial Budget, I secured an additional $750,000 to support survivors of domestic violence as they navigated the protection order process.
• 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.
In 2022, as Chair of the Committee of the Whole, I convened a series of panels to explore the issue of gun violence in our community and co-sponsored legislation calling for a voluntary firearm return program. This built upon Councilmember McDermott’s Gun Safety Action Plan, a package of legislation addressing topics ranging from safe storage to confiscated firearms that I cosponsored.
I 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 the November 2020 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; and
• Specifying that inquests should be performed for deaths taking place in the County’s jails and providing the family of the deceased with legal representation during the inquest process.
All four of these reforms were approved by voters and are in the process of being implemented and, after a nationwide search, Patti Cole-Tindall was selected to be the first appointed King County Sheriff. Her appointment was unanimously confirmed in May 2022.
Presenting 1,000 cloth masks to Mike Tulee, executive director of United Indians of All Tribes at Daybreak Star in Magnolia.
In 2020 and 2021, the Budget and Fiscal Management Committee under my leadership adopted eight emergency COVID-19 supplemental budgets appropriating federal CARES Act and FEMA funding to respond to the evolving needs of our community. Funding was included 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 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, business chambers and alliances, and community organizations, such as food banks and senior centers.
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 did at the county level to help people get masks and stay safe in an op-ed I wrote for the Queen Anne & Magnolia News in August of 2020.
The past several years have been incredibly stressful. 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 here. And, if you haven’t already, you can subscribe to these updates here.
Affordable Housing, Homelessness, and Human Services
Homelessness in King County continues to reach alarming numbers and the situation worsened with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing access to affordable housing and emergency support is a high priority for me.
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 the unhoused in King County and those impacted by the continuing increase in income inequality, a lack of available affordable housing, displacement, and gentrification. And, unfortunately, more and more retail businesses are going cashless which makes it more problematic for low-income people to pay for needed items which I’m addressing through my legislation, proposed ordinance 2023-0027. And 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 the 2021-2022 Biennial Budget, as authorized by a new state law, we included a relatively small sales tax increase of 0.01% that allows 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 was the Inn at Queen Anne, a hotel that has been housing folks experiencing homelessness since the beginning of the pandemic. More information about that purchase is in The Seattle Times. As of March 2023, a total of ten properties have been purchased throughout King County, including another one in the northern part of District Four. More information about this additional purchase is available here.
In 2022, we worked to combat displacement and gentrification with the Equitable Development Initiative, which I co-sponsored with Councilmembers Dembowski and Zahilay. The Equitable Development Initiative will serve as a guiding framework for investment and resource allocation in historically marginalized communities.
In June 2021, 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.
And 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 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. While this Authority leads the homelessness response, King County continues to support the homelessness response with the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Affordable Housing Committee.
I remain committed to addressing climate change head-on and approaching this crisis as a public health emergency. Using an equity lens, I continue 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 Transportation, Environment and Economy (TrEE) Committee.
I also worked hard to help stand up the Youth Conservation Corps within King County Parks. YCC is a paid summer internship program for teens interested in parks and the environment. Find out more about this program and learn how to apply.
The Council approved the County’s new 2020 Strategic Climate Action Plan (SCAP) in 2021, which includes cutting greenhouse gas emissions countywide in half by the end of the decade, placing a stronger focus on climate justice, and preparing the region for climate impacts. This is one of the most aggressive government plans anywhere to combat climate change and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a region-wide scale, e.g., 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.
And along with Councilmember Dembowski, 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 also sets 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, Metro has now retired the last of its diesel-only buses. The transition is underway!
Access to Transit
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 comes major challenges. People who have long lived in certain areas are being pushed out and displaced as the cost of living rises and affordable older units are razed for constructing high rise expensive apartments and condos. 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, especially as we come out of the challenges of the COVID pandemic.
In Summer 2022, the Council approved free youth transit passes for King County Metro, which I cosponsored, meaning that young people under the age of 19 are now able to ride transit for free across the County. In the long term, we hope that this will encourage the development of lifelong transit riders, while also ensuring that young people are able to travel around the county in a safe and accessible way.
Here are some of the transit-related achievements of mine:
• Fighting to ensure that transit service in the north end stays strong in the North Link Mobility Plan, which directs many KC Metro transit lines to the new Link Light Rail Stations in Northgate, Roosevelt, and the University District.
• A very low-income fare pilot to provide fare-free rides for our most vulnerable and struggling community members. You can read more about the Orca Lift 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.
• 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.
• Funding to bring back the waterfront shuttle to provide free transit from the Seattle Center to the waterfront.
• Extending a transit community ambassadors program along Third Avenue to Belltown transit stops.
• Secured the placement of a Route 29 bus stop at First and Broad in Belltown.
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 Chinook salmon, Southern Resident killer whales, and marine life in Puget Sound. That study provides more information on how we can improve our wastewater treatment processes to improve water quality. The study was recently released and is available here. I am in the process of exploring follow-up legislative action based on its recommendations.
We also approved a $65 million investment in the West Point Treatment Center to address issues with the power supply connectivity. Executive Constantine 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:• Ensuring that our unbanked and underbanked residents can still fully participate in the local economy by requiring that businesses in unincorporated King County accept cash. As of April 2023, this proposal is going through the review process.
• Preserving local history by advocating for and securing $750,000 in capital funding for the maintenance and repair of the ASUW Shellhouse, the WWI U.S. Navy seaplane hangar which eventually transitioned into the hallowed home of UW rowing. (2023)
• Supporting the creation of an Indigenous-led community space where Native tradition and wisdom can be honored, by securing $1.1 million in capital funding for the United Indians of All Tribes Canoe Center. (2023)
• Defending reproductive rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark decision Roe v. Wade by affirming King County’s commitment to defending abortion access and co-sponsoring legislation allocating $1 million in emergency funding to help with the potential increased demand for abortions in the Pacific Northwest due to restrictions elsewhere. (2022)
• Bringing the voices of young people impacted by sexual and gender-based violence in K-12 schools to the Board of Health by introducing an amendment to add that topic to the 2022 workplan. (2022)
• Changing the election of certain King County positions from odd-years to even-years to increase turnout through a voter-approved charter amendment that I co-sponsored. (2022)
• Banning the use of facial recognition technology by King County agencies through my legislation that passed through the Council unanimously, 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 the 2021 work plan of the King County Board of Health and how that may have a disproportionate impact on our unhoused residents. The law ended up being repealed by the Board of Health (with my being the sole nay vote), and I secured funding for a new position in Public Health to increase helmet use awareness and distribution. (2021)
• Fighting human trafficking in our region by instituting both statewide and 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)
• Protecting the health of our young people by securing funding to support lead testing for children. (2019)
• An overhaul of the County’s Anti-Discrimination and Harassment policies, procedures and trainings to expand the conduct that constitutes inappropriate behavior. (2018)
• Rewriting the King County Code to be gender neutral, in collaboration with Councilmember Claudia Balducci (approved by the voters in 2016)