HSD Director Nomination Stalls Out; Library Levy Moves Forward

1. The nomination process for interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson appears to be stalled due to a lack of support from city council members, who have the final say on mayoral department director nominations. It’s unclear whether or when the city council will revive the confirmation hearings.

Last week, council member Sally Bagshaw canceled a scheduled meeting of the council’s select committee on homelessness and housing affordability, which included consideration of Johnson’s nomination, and has not rescheduled it. Some council members were reportedly unsatisfied with Johnson’s responses to their questions about inclusivity, Johnson’s personal commitment to race and social justice, independence, and his vision for the department.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has been criticized by HSD’s own internal Change Team (which leads the department’s implementation of the Race and Social Justice Initiative), as well as the Seattle Silence Breakers and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, for nominating Johnson without a “transparent and inclusive process” for selecting a new HSD leader. Earlier this year, city council member Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution to halt Johnson’s nomination and start a new search for a new HSD director. That resolution failed, with Sawant, Mike O’Brien, and Teresa Mosqueda casting the dissenting votes. But concerns about the process and about whether Johnson is the right person for the job seem to have grown since the council began holding hearings in March.

At the most recent committee meeting, on March 28, Johnson attributed the results of a survey showing widespread dissatisfaction among HSD employees, particularly those in the homelessness division, to the “instability” and “immense change” that comes with every new mayoral administration. Johnson also responded to questions about whether he’d be “independent” from Durkan—first saying that the department always employs “evidence-based strategies,” then acknowledging that he wouldn’t say it’s “my way or the highway” if Durkan disagreed with his recommendations on an issue. Council president Bruce Harrell then asked Johnson if he had considered the ways in which white privilege had greased his path to the nomination. Johnson said yes, he was aware “that I was going to have a much easier time” than his African-American predecessor, Catherine Lester, then noted that Lester  “brought me to this organization and… when she resigned and was talking about next steps, offer[ed] her full confidence in my abilities to the mayor.”

Mayor Durkan’s office declined to answer questions about the nomination process or the reason for the delay. They also repeatedly requested the names of specific council members opposed to Johnson’s nomination.

An audit earlier this year concluded that HSD is not doing enough to coordinate the efforts of the agencies that do outreach to unsheltered people; has failed to identify and prioritize people who have recently become homeless for the first time; does not provide nearly enough restrooms or showers for the thousands of people sleeping  outdoors throughout the city; and does not have a good system in place for evaluating the success of the city’s response to homelessness. (Last year, the city and county announced plans to create a new, merged agency to address homelessness, which could help address concerns about coordination; at the same time, the lack of certainty around what that agency will look like, and where current HSD employees will fit in the new structure, has likely contributed to low morale in HSD’s homelessness division.)

It’s unclear exactly how many council members would vote against Johnson if his nomination came up for a vote today (Sawant, of course, looks like a pretty hard no), but sources inside and outside city hall say that he does not currently have the votes to secure the permanent appointment. Johnson has served on an interim basis for nearly a year—a fact to which Durkan has pointed as evidence that he’s qualified for the permanent position.

Bagshaw, who would have to reconvene the committee to revive the nomination process, said she had no comment “yet” about the nomination, and other council members declined to speak on the record.

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2. The council added several million dollars to Durkan’s proposed $213 million library levy Wednesday and moved it one step closer to the ballot. The special committee on the library levy adopted the proposal after adding amendments that will, if the levy passes, expand the bilingual “Play and Learn” early-literacy program ($2.1 million); keep branch libraries, but not the downtown library, open an additional hour every day ($2.5 million); and add a youth services support social worker and a part-time case worker to do outreach to library patrons experiencing homelessness ($1.1 million). A couple of amendments that didn’t make it into the legislation: A study that would look into the feasibility of locating child-care facilities at library branches, and funding for two additional security officers.

The levy proposal goes to the full council next Monday, April 22.

For the basics on the levy, which would add library hours and eliminate library fines, check out my primer at Seattle magazine.

8 thoughts on “HSD Director Nomination Stalls Out; Library Levy Moves Forward”

  1. 1. Are your sources convinced that the reason the Committee was called out of session is because of the HSD Director questions (and answers) or because the confirmation is tied to a homeless (houseless or shelter-less) bill and THAT is – because of “Seattle is Dying” – the impediment. And now they have to untie that procedural knot.

    2. The library levy article above (and your Seattle primer) pretty well lay out the levy questions for the Council and voters. But given that this is 2019, I THINK I could make a cogent argument for conversion from lending physical books library system, to a Kindle (like) book borrowing system and save money while protecting copyrights. You would not get a library “card” but a free library “kindle” and borrow the books for the same 2-3 weeks (except McMillan for 10 days) and the book would just melt off the Kindle (electronically) and the copyright returned to the library that lent the book for relending. No fines or fees ever again. If you are well off you can buy your own Kindle or iPhone for reading but it would be “registered” with the library and have a library card app to confirm. They could, like now, include audible books for the blind. Research books could be a challenge, but day-to-day reading for pleasure and insight would be fairly easy. And Kindle like tablets when bought in 100,000 item lots would likely be cheaper than buying a building and heating and lighting it. I’d even betcha that our local buddy Jeff could take on a SPL pilot program and he’d even throw in a free subscription to WaPo for one year. And there are a couple of folks in Redmond who could put all the books in the world in a computer in their basement for storage – on just one drive (pun intended). It would all boil down to what does a “rugged” tablet with a one week battery cost to hand out to those who want. We could try this in K-12 schools as well. College books is too tough a sell to get through the professors’ union monopoly.

  2. I would love some context for Bruce Harold’s comments about white privilege. Where is that question coming from? Should no white people apply for jobs in the Seattle management? Is it assumed that because they are white they have somehow skipped out on the professional qualifications they would need simply because of skin color? Or is there some public ritual of white guilt/entitlement/shaming that they have to go through before they are allowed to be even considered as a hire?

  3. “add a youth services support social worker and a part-time case worker to do outreach to library patrons experiencing homelessness ($1.1 million)” How much are they paying these folks? Must be some other stuff in there too.

    I’ve heard rumblings from HSD contractors, but I’m not really that connected anymore, since the city quite paying for overnight shelter for Nightwatch about 20 years ago.

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