City council member Kshama Sawant has proposed delaying the appointment of a permanent director for the city’s Human Services Department until “a formal search process can be completed,” according to the text of a resolution Sawant plans to introduce next week. HSD has been operating without a permanent director for nearly a year, since Catherine Lester, the director under former mayor Ed Murray, left in March. Last month, Durkan formally nominated interim director Jason Johnson, who previously served as deputy director, for the permanent position. Sawant has not scheduled a hearing on the nomination, which is supposed to go through her Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renters’ Rights committee.* Sawant has only held one regular meeting of her committee, which is supposed to meet on the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, since last July,
Several groups, and at least three council members, have formally expressed misgivings about the process that led to Johnson’s nomination. On January 15, the Seattle Human Services Coalition—a group that includes the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness as well as groups that advocate for seniors, people of color, domestic-violence survivors, and people with disabilities—sent a letter to council members urging them “to return the nomination to Mayor Durkan and request a full search process that includes integral participation of human service providers, program participants, HSD employees, and other public partners.” One week later, city council members Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez sent their own letter to Durkan, suggesting that the HSD appointment should go through to the same kind of public process as the nominations of Seattle City Light director Debra Smith and Police Chief Carmen Best. And one day after that, members of the Human Services Department’s Change Team, which oversees HSD’s implementation of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, wrote an email to council members saying that Seattle deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan had told HSD staff that “there would be an inclusive process for the selection of the permanent director. … Instead, staff learned Mayor Durkan made the decision to directly appoint our interim director into a permanent position—foregoing an inclusive process that many believed would take place.”
“While the Mayor has had a thoughtful hiring process for each of her appointments, Councilmember Sawant is refusing to move forward on confirming a qualified LGBTQ candidate who has a proven record, including over the last year as Interim Director. Jason has gone through the most exhaustive and exhausting process by actually doing his job. It’s time for Councilmember Sawant – who has been absent as chair of her committee – to do hers.”
In the middle of all this back and forth, on January 22, Sawant announced she would hold a special meeting of her committee to take public comment on the nomination on the night of January 24, at the Miller Community Center on Capitol Hill. About 35 people spoke at the meeting—all but one opposed to either Johnson himself or to the process that led to his nomination.
No one else from the council came to at Sawant’s last-minute “listening session,” prompting Sawant to suggest that her colleagues had different “priorities” than she did. On Monday, she urged her colleagues to watch the video of the testimony, which she called proof that the community wanted a more inclusive nomination process. Not only did Durkan “not even conduct a nominal process,” Sawant said Monday, she had ignored Sawant’s repeated requests for a meeting to discuss the nomination. “My office has been asking the mayor for [a discussion about the search process] and there was no response,” Sawant said. “Week after week after week there was no response, and then they just sent the nomination.”
The mayor’s office sharply disputes this characterization. Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says Sawant never requested a meeting with the mayor or her office to discuss the nomination, and has not attended any of her regularly scheduled monthly one-on-one meetings with the mayor in nearly a year.
“While the Mayor has had a thoughtful hiring process for each of her appointments, Councilmember Sawant, who fires and hires staff at the direction of an outside political committee, is refusing to move forward on confirming a qualified LGBTQ candidate who has a proven record, including over the last year as Interim Director,” Prentice said. “Jason has gone through the most exhaustive and exhausting process by actually doing his job. It’s time for Councilmember Sawant – who has been absent as chair of her committee – to do hers.”
Last week, the mayor’s office sent two letters to council members defending Johnson’s the nomination. The first, addressed to Gonzalez and Mosqueda, thanked the council members for their letter and their “individual commitments to ensure Seattle is centered on equity, justice, and compassion in all our work.” The second, addressed to Sawant, castigated the council member for holding a public hearing on the nomination process “with no meaningful notice” and “without extending an opportunity to have Jason” attend and defend his record. “We look forward to you finally scheduling a meaningful hearing with Jason regarding his appointment as the permanent director of the Human Services Department in the coming weeks,” the letter concluded. In what is hard not to see as a deliberate slight, that letter was signed not by Durkan, but by her legislative liaison, Anthony Auriemma.
Sawant’s resolution, if passed with the blessing of a council majority, would effectively force the mayor to undertake a formal search process, led by a committee that includes HSD employees, for a new director. What’s unclear is how long such a process would take; at what point Sawant would consider the process sufficient to let the nomination move through her committee; and, importantly, whether a public, nationwide search would turn up a robust list of qualified candidates for a job that could be hard to fill. The HSD director implements the mayor’s priorities for funding human-services providers, oversees the controversial Navigation Teams, and is the conduit for public criticism of the city’s response to the homelessness crisis. Since 2014, the department has had four acting or interim directors, two of whom went on to become permanent The director before Johnson, Catherine Lester, served as acting or interim director twice before her permanent appointment to the position.
* While director nominations typically go through the committee assigned to that subject area, the council has the authority to remove any legislation, including a nomination, from one committee and put it into another, although that would require extraordinary circumstances.