Shakeups at the City: Durkan Announces New Interim Directors for Human Services and Arts Departments

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle Human Services Department interim director Jason Johnson—interim, since 2018, because the city council declined to approve his nomination after a series of contentious hearings—is leaving his position at the end of the year. In his place, Mayor Jenny Durkan is appointing King County Housing Authority senior policy director Helen Howell on an interim basis “while the City embarks on an inclusive, nationwide search for the permanent director,” according to a press release announcement the appointment.

Interim deputy mayor Tiffany Washington—who just replaced Shefali Ranganathan in the mayor’s office—will head up the search for a permanent director.

Johnson will officially leave the city on January 15, but will be taking a “long planned vacation” starting next Monday, he told staff in an email. “My work throughout 2020 has been on borrowed time,” Johnson’s email continued. “As you may recall, I delayed an earlier announced departure from HSD in order to help the City and our partners respond to COVID-19, develop the department’s 2021 budget, and to ensure the governance structure of the regional homelessness authority was launched and positioned to hire a CEO. … This was not an easy decision for me to make—especially given how much the department is holding at this time—but with these priorities accomplished and in good hands, it is time for me to step away. ”

Howell, the new interim director, is also the former executive director of Building Changes, a Seattle-based group that focuses on homelessness.

Howell is In 2016 and again in 2018, Howell wrote op/eds for the Seattle Times promoting diversion—programs to move people from homelessness to better housing situations, such as “getting back in the good graces of a previous landlord or negotiating with a relative who can offer a place to stay”—as “a common-sense and cost-effective strategy that helps families identify immediate options for housing without relying on housing provided by or subsidized through the homeless system.”

In 2005, she stepped down from her position as director of the state Department of Financial Institutions. According to a Seattle Times report, she was popular with consumer advocates—and unpopular with the institutions she regulated, including payday lenders—because of her focus on consumer protection. She was also the head of Washington state’s Obama delegation in 2008 and one of 11 applicants to fill Dow Constantine’s county council seat when he was elected county executive in 2009.

The Human Services Department is transferring much of its role overseeing Seattle’s homelessness system to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority next year, although HSD will continue to oversee outreach to unsheltered people through the new HOPE team established in the 2021 city budget. Encampment removals, once the purview of the Navigation Team and largely halted during the pandemic, will likely resume to some extent next year, although it’s unclear how the responsibility for future removals will be distributed among the various departments that are responsible for them now.

Johnson officially resigned his position at the end of February, but stayed on because of the pandemic, which required major shifts in how the city responded to homelessness. The city council decided not to approve his appointment, in part, because several members felt he did not respond adequately to questions about his willingness to make decisions independent from Mayor Jenny Durkan, his commitment to race and social justice, and his lack of responsiveness to questions about layoffs at the homelessness division, among other issues.

In a statement, Mayor Jenny Durkan praised Johnson’s decision to stay on board during the pandemic. “His quick and decisive actions kept our most marginalized communities safe throughout the pandemic,” Durkan said. “Because of his vision and leadership, the Human Services Department is primed to build on these efforts for years to come.”

Although the job of HSD director will be less directly focused on homelessness in the future than it has been under Johnson, the new director will also be in charge of a perpetually dissatisfied Homelessness Strategy and Investment division that has been bleeding staff due to uncertainty over whether and when they’ll get jobs in the new RHA; the delayed hiring of a CEO for that authority has exacerbated the uncertainty.

Durkan also announced two other departmental shakeups this morning: Randy Engstrom, the longtime director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, will be replaced by current deputy director Calandra Childers on an interim basis. According to Durkan’s announcement, Engstrom “will turn his attention to teaching, advocating for national cultural policies, and spending time with his family.”

Durkan is also replacing the acting director of the Office of Emergency Management, Laurel Nelson since longtime director Barb Graff left (only to come back temporarily to head up the city’s COVID emergency response) in 2019, will be headed by Curry Mayer, who was most recently director of Bellevue’s Office of Emergency Management.

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