Janelle Kellman on Politics, the Environment and Her Work as Mayor

Passionate about driving change, Janelle Kellman has spent her life addressing critical issues associated with climate change. After receiving an undergraduate degree in history from Yale, a master’s in environmental management from Oxford and a law degree from Stanford (all while playing Division I sports), Kellman began her career as an environmental attorney working across public and private practices. In addition to her accomplishments in the legal profession, Kellman launched a technology startup and now runs a global nonprofit focused on coastal resilience and ocean health and advises early-stage clean companies on electrification, decarbonization and ocean health. In 2022, she served as mayor of Sausalito and currently has her sights set on lieutenant governor of California in 2026. Globally recognized for her expertise and leadership, she applies her unique experience to finding solutions to complex problems. Here, Kellman shares what inspired her to pursue a career devoted to tackling climate change, her proudest accomplishments so far and her plans for the future.

Where are you from and when did you come to Marin?

I’m originally from Northeastern Pennsylvania and went to undergrad back East. I came to California for law school at Stanford in 1997 and fell in love with the area. After school, I moved to San Diego but quickly ended up back in San Francisco for a job. At the time, I was rowing at Marin Rowing Association, and when looking for a place to live, I looked into Sausalito because it was the perfect location between my job and the boat house. Driving through, I remember thinking, “What is this paradise?!” I moved to Sausalito in 2001 and have lived here and been absolutely in love with it ever since.

When did you find a passion for the environment?

I often explain my career path simply by telling people I’m a lifelong athlete. As a lifelong athlete, I grew up playing outdoors. I played four different sports in high school, and from a young age, I had a deep connection to nature and being outside. As anyone who has spent hours practicing some type of sport outside, you start to notice changes in temperature, rainfall and ecosystem health. You feel connected to what’s happening around you. I think being a lifelong team sport athlete has truly shaped every significant career moment and decision for me.

What is the most exciting thing you are working on right now?

Two things: First is my climate resilience work with the Center for Sea Rise Solutions focused on coastal adaptations and ocean health, and second is my decision to run for statewide office and enter the race in California for lieutenant governor. Obviously, the two are intertwined. My entire life, I have been working on environmental solutions. I’ve enjoyed a great career across law, business and innovation, so I’ve been able to appreciate different perspectives. When I was elected as mayor, I immediately started working on several climate resilience projects. Here in Marin, we have more storms than we used to have, and those storms are more intense. We have high tides, and these high tides, coupled with subsidence and storm frequency and intensity, are causing massive flooding. An example everyone sees each year is the bike path (that runs from Sausalito through Mill Valley). I began to understand that we need long-term planning around the flooding we’re experiencing, and we need to better understand how this impacts our basic infrastructure.

As mayor what action did you take to address the coastal resiliency issues we see in Sausalito?

I assembled a talented group of Sausalito volunteers, created a sea-level rise task force, and developed a set of recommendations for the city council to consider to take action; however, we needed funding. I’m very action-oriented, and this inspired me to roll up my sleeves and get to work tapping into the expertise of my task force. I had two wonderful mentors at OneShoreline in San Mateo who work on sea-level rise. I made a request to the State for funding, and my request was granted. We received $1 million from the state of California to take action on sea-level rise. Sausalito had never received this type of funding from the state for climate work. We had never asked, but I saw an opportunity and went for it. Now we’re developing a vulnerability assessment, and we hired a sustainability and resilience manager. We’re well-positioned to start planning long-term around both sustainability and resilience. I thought about how these issues didn’t just stop here with me in Marin, surely other people have these concerns, so I launched an NGO called the Center for Sea Rise Solutions. Basically, I travel across the country and to key parts of Europe to work with local decision-makers to share these opportunities for coastal communities to take action and become more resilient in the face of flooding and other impacts of sea-level rise. Naturally, this was extended internationally, and I have worked closely with elected leaders in France, Portugal and Italy to share learnings, findings, and ways to educate and empower our communities.

What is the most important message you want to share about addressing climate change?

Part of it is focused on opportunity and hope. People aren’t inspired by doom and gloom and anxiety, so what are ways that we can take action? What are ways we can take action together? If you focus on hope and opportunity because there are things we can do, the oceans are our biggest ally. If we could double down on cleaning the oceans and consider them a friend in our efforts to sequester carbon, then we can start to see opportunities to make significant changes in our lifetimes. 

What is your advice to those in Marin on how to do their part to help accelerate climate action in communities? 

Get involved. Not only educate yourself and learn as much as you can, but also volunteer for a task force or a community group. It’s a movement, and you have to gain momentum and inspire each other. Don’t be afraid to be the person who gets inspired, as you may inspire somebody else. Do something, because together we can do incredible things. Get yourself into a community that’s supportive, and contribute whatever you can, even if it’s just your energy. Even if you don’t have a particular skill set, contribute passion and purpose. Start to do something, and you’ll find other like-minded people will start to do something, too.

What led you to become interested in local government and your eventual role as mayor of Sausalito?

My dad was big into philanthropic work, which showed me how to make an impact for a cause I care about. I wanted to use my background in environmental management and law to help the community tackle issues that I saw not only locally, but also across California. I had the opportunity to run for the Sausalito city council and got elected in 2020. I’ve worked on local issues with statewide impacts like affordable housing, homelessness, climate resilience and more. When I was elected mayor, I was able to further utilize my perspectives and experiences to exercise pragmatic solutions by helping lead the drafting of Sausalito’s new housing policy, which was the first to be approved in Marin County by the state, and by negotiating complex funding and policy solitons for a homeless encampment in Sausalito. Working on these solutions at the local level gave me insight into the broader impact our work and decisions can make statewide.

You’ve got quite the athletic background. What sport is your favorite now?

I love any sport with a ball — basketball, soccer and even pickleball. I used to be a big cyclist, but after a cycling accident, I fell in love with running. Ultramarathon running has been my latest favorite. Whenever I land somewhere new, I like to run as a way to explore and get an on-the-ground feel for new places and communities.

I love the open spaces in Marin. Here in my backyard, I’ve got miles of trails in the Marin Headlands. We’re fortunate to have access — free access — to the beaches, mountains, paths, Muir Woods and more. It makes me happy that visitors from all over the world come to see the beautiful parts of Marin.

* definitions taken from Drake University website.