Elizabeth Kosa recently stepped into her role as the first female director of Whatcom County Public Works.
A Snohomish native, Kosa graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve for over a decade. She then became port engineer for Horizon Lines in Tacoma and then worked nearly a decade at Washington State Ferries, first as a senior port engineer and then chief of staff, where she oversaw 1,600 employees and a $450 million budget.
In 2019, Kosa left the state ferries to become a special programs and asset manager at Whatcom County Public Works, working her way to become assistant director and then interim director last November. Whatcom County Council approved county executive Satpal Sidhu’s appointment of Kosa in April. Her appointment means all county public works directors along I-5 from Snohomish to Whatcom are women.
Kosa sat down with The Northern Light to discuss her experience in a male-dominated field and her biggest priorities for the next year. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
How does it feel to be the first woman to serve as Whatcom County’s public works director?
I come from a maritime background, which has been male-dominated throughout my entire career. I’ve been the first woman to do a lot because there weren’t any females.
As far as public works, I just feel honored. Anytime I am the first female, it’s like breaking the glass ceiling, not intentionally, it just happens. I’m glad that I can show others that they can do it. If you work hard, treat people well and do what’s best for the community, I think you can succeed.
What has been your experience working in a male-dominated field?
I went to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and it was 14 males to every one female. I was the only woman in my entire section. When I went out to sea, there were years that there weren’t any women that I was sailing with. If there were, they were usually in the stewardess department doing the cooking and cleaning.
When I worked for Washington State Ferries, there were quite a bit more women but still very few with the engine side. I think five out of 300 employees that I oversaw directly were women. And then I came here and there were a lot more women.
Have you ever experienced pushback for being a woman in a male-dominated field?
When I was sailing commercially I had a chief engineer try to sabotage me and give me jobs that didn’t have any direction. I was told by other engineers he was trying to find a way to fire me but couldn’t. And usually with those experiences, once they got to know me and realized I’m here to work, not cause issues and gender shouldn’t matter, then they become great allies.
I’ve had a couple of instances in my career where people were trying a little harder to see if they could push me out, yet it didn’t work.
What attracted you to join public works?
When I read the job description for public works, I realized it’s all of the same stuff: The management of people, executing repairs and maintenance and overseeing an organization.
I took a step down from chief of staff to asset manager but I’m glad I did because it gave me the chance to come in at a peer level and get to know the organization. And then I became the assistant director. I helped navigate through all the difficulties of the last two years, whether it was the flood or Covid.
What do you see as the biggest priorities you want to accomplish in your first year as director?
We had employee movement so I’m looking to give stability to the organization and train new employees.
Externally, really focusing on our lines of service. This county is growing faster than we’re growing public works so there’s more service demands. Those demands aren’t going away. We know that each dollar is really valuable and inflation has gone up so being cognizant of the changes the community is facing and what the county can provide.
And looking past this next year, I want to look at how we can be more competitive with grants and the changing environment. Being able to address problems in the future, whether it’s environmental or regulatory, rather than being at the tail end.
Beyond road maintenance, we do water quality. We do large contracts and construction jobs. We replace bridges beyond road striping, sweeping, ditching, tree limbing or plowing of roads in the winter. We have a weed control group that ensures there’s no invasive species. We work on reducing pollution, shellfish habitat, fish habitat and culverts. We’re one of the few counties in the state that owns and operates a ferry.
What do you see as the biggest needs for public works to address in Birch Bay and Custer?
King tides are more prevalent than they have been in the past. As the community grows, there’s more traffic congestion in the Birch Bay area, as well as where the water flows if it’s not being absorbed by the land when there’s something built there.
How much of an impact did the November 2021 floods have on public works and how much of an impact does it have now?
At the time, it was significant. It still plays a major role in what we’re doing.
Birch Bay-Lynden Road lost that section of road. We had temporary repairs put in Birch Bay-Lynden Road but that section of road eventually needs to be removed. We’re not sure what it will look like in the future, whether it’s an extremely large culvert or a bridge.
We have a couple of big flood projects that we’re doing right now on the Jones Creek deflection berm and the Everson overflow this summer.
I think it was an eye-opener that floods are not necessarily a decade or multi-decade event. They might be more frequent now and we need to be better prepared.
What do you like to do in your free time when you’re
I like to build. I’m into woodworking. I’ve built a couple of homes. I love to ski, outdoor sports and hiking. I love traveling.
Giving back to what we have here makes sense. Whatcom County makes sense. It’s a fulfillment of where I see myself in my career, really more oriented toward the community where I work.
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