The King County Council is often neglected by local media in favor of the spicier races for Seattle City Council. This makes sense since the city has a lot more direct authority over day-to-day issues than the county. However, King County still has responsibility for important issues like public health and transportation. And for a quarter million residents of unincorporated King County, the county is effectively their city too.
In King County District 4, which covers a chunk of Seattle stretching from Queen Anne to the north of Ballard, incumbent Jeanne Kohl-Welles is not seeking reelection after serving for two terms. This has opened up the race to fresh candidates, two of whom prevailed in the August primaries: Washington assistant attorney General Sarah Reyneveld and former Northwest Immigrant Rights Project executive director Jorge Barón.
Both candidates have marketed themselves as progressive advocates, leading to a relatively peaceful contest. However, Reyneveld says her time working for the state government on environmental and public health litigation gives her the necessary experience to be a leader on the King County Council. While she gained significant support in the primary, winning 29% of the vote, Reyneveld still has a lot of ground to make up if she wants to catch up to Barón’s 51%.
Over a video call, Reyneveld laid out the case to Real Change for why she would be the best fit for District 4.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Real Change: What motivated you to run for King County Council?
Sarah Reyneveld: I’m a managing assistant attorney general, public school mom, transit rider, union member, community advocate and 25-year District 4 neighbor. And I am motivated to run for King County Council because we need bold and transformative action to address the scale of the challenges that are facing our region at this time. We need experienced leadership and also tangible solutions to address King County’s urgent issues. Those include affordable housing, public and mental health, opioid addiction [and] climate change. As a member of the King County Women’s Advisory Board since 2016, I have had the opportunity to work collaboratively with our communities across King County, through advocacy, to better ensure that we are lifting up and improving the lives of women and more vulnerable populations.
What makes you better than your opponent, Jorge Barón?
I have experienced leadership and will bring tangible solutions to address the scale of the challenges that are facing King County. First is experience as a member of the King County Women’s Advisory Board and as an assistant attorney general in [Attorney General] Ferguson’s office, working to protect vulnerable communities. Second is community. I have been a member of the fourth council district for 25 years and have been showing up authentically in this community and really working hand in hand with our neighbors and community members to drive progressive results. I would say third is that my perspective as a public school parent, working mom, attorney, union member, transit rider and community advocate will allow me to be uniquely effective in leading on policies that are important to the people of the fourth council district. And lastly, I would just say I’m not afraid to stand up to the status quo to drive progressive results.
If elected, are you willing to take on the rich and powerful to accomplish your policy priorities? And do you want to tax the rich more?
Yes, I believe that ensuring that the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in our community pay their fair share is essential to addressing these challenges and creating a more equitable and sustainable future for everyone in King County. I want to work with a growing coalition of advocates and community members that I think are really feeling the effects of potential cuts in the King County budget. As well as the executive and my council colleagues, to obtain progressive taxation authority on the local level, to ensure that big businesses and wealthy individuals are paying their fair share and also to relieve the taxation burden, including property tax burden, on working and fixed-income neighbors.
Over the last decade, we’ve been seeing more and more cities like Bellevue, Mercer Island and Burien pass or consider anti-homeless ordinances and camping bans. If elected, how would you push back against this type of discriminatory policymaking?
Homelessness is a regional crisis, and I believe it is critical that every city across King County acts to ensure there’s adequate shelter for our unhoused neighbors. Passing anti-homeless ordinances is discriminatory and does not address the root cause of the crisis that we’re experiencing in our communities. The Ninth Circuit has already ruled that cities, such as Burien, cannot enforce camping bans if they don’t have sufficient shelter beds. If elected, I really want to push back against these policies by looking for legislative and budgetary solutions that will incentivize and, if possible, prevent cities such as Burien from rejecting shelter offers.
Last year, the King County Auditor found that the Sheriff’s Office arrests people and uses force in a racially discriminatory manner. How would you address that disproportionality?
This is really unacceptable, and it’s a really sad reality that Black and Brown people are arrested and subjected to police use of force at disproportionately higher rates. King County data is probably consistent with larger trends in racial disparities and policing, and I am committed to using my position as the King County Council member to really root out racial disparities and racism in the King County Sheriff’s Office.
King County Council must use the authority granted to it through Charter Amendment 6 to collect and analyze demographic data to better understand where an officer is involved in arrests, use of force and to really identify racial disparities and look to invest in models like co-navigator and civilian-led policing approaches.
You kind of answered the next question, which was about the other auditor report, which explored alternative crisis response models. What would you do to implement a model like that in King County?
It’s gonna require a strong partnership and cooperation with cities across King County. My understanding is that some cities have opted to use the radar navigator program, and some cities have not. [So] making sure that we collect data on the effectiveness of both co-responder models and also civilian-led models that are uniquely effective in crisis de-escalation and outreach and referral services to those in crisis.
As the crisis care centers come online throughout King County, there’s a unique opportunity to partner with either co-responder models or also civilian-led models and ensure de-escalation and connection to services.
King County Metro workers just won a 17% pay increase. Yet many still report worsening labor conditions contributing to workforce attrition. How would you address poor labor conditions and understaffing at King County Metro?
I am proud to be endorsed by ATU, which represents the Metro bus workers, including Metro bus operators and maintenance workers. My understanding of the causes of poor labor conditions and understaffing at King County Metro is really informed by the lived experience of those King County Metro workers that I’ve talked to. As a union member who has helped organize my workforce, I understand and have spent a lot of time talking to King County Metro workers about their challenges with competitive pay, the lack of flexibility and also better and safer working conditions. I’m really proud of King County Metro [workers] for winning that contract. I think that’s a huge victory, but it’s not enough to really address a lot of the issues with compensation as well as benefits and flexibility long-term.
What is your long-term plan for King County Metro and our regional transportation system? Do you support a fare-free model? And how would you pay for the investments needed to improve public transit?
Yes, as a transit rider [myself] since high school, I am running to be a transit champion on the King County Council, and I am frustrated that Metro transit service has declined since the pandemic. If we are going to address our climate crisis, we absolutely need to get people out of cars and into public transit rapidly. We know that the current state of our Metro transit service with these canceled routes and reduced service is disproportionately impacting Black [and] Indigenous communities of color, people with disabilities that rely on transit and youth. If elected, I want to work with a growing coalition, including the Transit Riders Union and Seattle Subway and urbanists who have talked about this, [to get] a King County transportation benefit district that would supplant the city transportation benefit district over the finish line to restore and increase service
So it sounds like eventually you want to see the fare-free transit?
I would love to see it eventually. Right now, what we need to do is boost transit service to make sure that it’s more accessible, reliable, convenient and safe, because people aren’t riding it right now because it’s, unfortunately, not convenient enough.
There’s a lack of public restrooms in both Seattle and King County as a whole. Do you think King County agencies like Public Health or the King County Regional Homelessness Authority have a role to play in fixing this issue?
Yes, they absolutely have a role. This is a really fundamental need, and we need to ensure that we are increasing public restrooms throughout King County. One thing we need to do is understand how many public restrooms we actually have that are functioning both in the city of Seattle and King County. Because right now, it’s really hard to get good data on that. I think that the city of Seattle is reporting that there are more public restrooms on paper than there actually are that are working, that have accessible hygiene. So getting an example of the real numbers on how many we have is going to be critically important to looking at how many we need. In addition to that, I want to scale up not just public restrooms, but also hygiene centers.
Our region is facing an escalating fentanyl and opioid crisis. If elected, how would you address the issue?
As an assistant attorney general, I have served on the Attorney General’s Office opioid task force and worked on the opioid litigation that resulted in a $104 million recovery for King County. So this issue is really near and dear to my heart, and I want to ensure that when elected, I am working in partnership with regional leaders to coordinate effective regional responses to really end the fentanyl crisis because it’s just costing too many vulnerable lives and we can do so much better. Based on my experience, I understand that effective government responses to opioid use disorder has to include evidence-based treatment and harm reduction responses.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of UW expert Caleb Banta-Green, but his studies have shown that we need to invest and scale up evidence-based treatment hubs, with medication-assisted treatment on demand, because they really are working and have better outcomes than other traditional law enforcement responses.
King County is facing big potential budget cuts; a hole of up to $100 million. Public Health — Seattle & King County could be hit hard by that. How would you fill that gap?
King County is still recovering from a pandemic. We have to continue to invest in equitable access to public health. So if elected, I would explore further revenue options, and that includes working with a growing coalition of advocates, the King County Executive and the King County Council to obtain progressive taxation from the Legislature. Lift the 1% property tax limit and also make property tax less regressive by expanding exemptions for low-income homeowners.
The King County jail has been deemed unsafe. We’ve seen a number of people die in the facility with one expert labeling the suicide rate as “astronomical.” If elected, how would you address the crisis there?
There’s a humanitarian crisis at the King County jail. As you stated, six people died last year, and that’s unacceptable. The King County Council and executive are failing to provide enough oversight of the jail. And it is possible that the county is in violation of our settlement agreement because the jails are so overcrowded and there’s lack of access to medical and behavioral health care.
I also want to reduce the jail population through immediate and upstream solutions. Some of which we’ve discussed include, preventing and reducing incarceration through expanding access to behavioral health, the radar navigator program and successful diversion programs such as LEAD and treatment beds. Particularly treatment beds, because there are over 100 people in King County jail that are awaiting restoration hearings and need to be transferred to mental health beds in a timely manner that complies with state law.
Read more of the Oct. 25-31, 2023 issue.