After nearly a yearlong search for someone to lead it, leaders of King County’s new Regional Homelessness Authority voted Thursday on the hiring of Regina Cannon, a homelessness consultant from Atlanta.
The authority, which is made up of leaders from Seattle, King County, suburban cities, nonprofits and people who have experienced homelessness, was formed in early 2020 only to sit largely dormant for a year, mired in infighting. Its first full-time employee, the CEO, was originally supposed to be hired in September, but COVID-19 slowed the process down.
On Thursday, elected leaders and homeless advocates expressed hope for the future as they selected Cannon.
“It’s been a bumpy road, but we are at a milestone,” said Harold Odom, co-chair of the implementation board, which recommended Cannon. Odom lives in a tiny house village in Georgetown and is currently recovering from contracting COVID-19 last month. “I look forward to the next few months, because they will be interesting. We have a CEO, and we can move forward in a way we haven’t before.”
Cannon, if she accepts the offer, will have a big job ahead: hiring staff to replace both Seattle and King County’s homelessness divisions, taking over all contracts with nonprofits and shelters and potentially auditing them, and trying to represent both Seattle — where rising homelessness has overwhelmed shelters for years — and the suburbs, which have little infrastructure to help homeless people in their cities but whose populaces tend to be against building any.
“Ms. Cannon’s service across governments, her strong background in equitable housing and supportive services, and the intersection with racial equity are huge assets and will help inform her ability to deliver results for our region’s most vulnerable neighbors,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement. “I’m confident she will develop the strategies necessary to significantly address homelessness throughout our region.”
The two boards had met Wednesday and Thursday in closed-door sessions to discuss which candidate they preferred of two finalists. Members of the governing board left the meeting during the deliberations of whom to recommend for hiring.
Cannon’s selection also reflects calls from advocates and people who have been homeless on the governing committee to focus more on racial justice: In King County, where Black and Indigenous people make up disproportionate chunks of the homeless population, advocates have insisted homelessness cannot be fixed without fixing that disparity.
Cannon’s consulting career is focused on where race and homelessness meet. She is chief equity and impact officer at C4 Innovations, a homelessness consulting firm in Massachusetts, and is a former professor and mental health counselor. She’s perhaps best known in the homelessness policy world for a report she co-authored that found many homelessness nonprofits nationwide were using assessments that prioritized white people for housing over people of color. In 2012, she worked for the mayor of Atlanta, leading a pilot project that got 222 chronically homeless people housed in 100 days.
Last year, she helped teach a five-week course, promoted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to human services agencies across the country, on how to “identify and dismantle racism in your program, agency and community.”
Cannon has also been outspoken and pointed about demanding reform: Last year as protests were sweeping the nation, Cannon quoted prison abolitionist Angela Davis and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a podcast produced by C4 Innovations.
“We will feel the backlash from those who benefit most from the racist status quo,” Cannon said. “And, it will come from seemingly surprising places — from the same people, the same companies that splatter their websites with Black Lives Matter. They will soon tire of being called out and having demands put upon them to make real and sustainable change. They will push back with a fierce urgency to protect their power. Frederick Douglass said, 163 years ago, ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.'”
Cannon didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The authority moved quickly in the last few weeks to interview candidates and choose finalists for the position, which will pay between $200,000 and $250,000. (Cannon’s exact salary has not yet been finalized.) When The Seattle Times reported in early January on the delay in finding a CEO or setting significant policies, the authority had not yet started to interview people.
Since then, staff from the county and the implementation board’s co-chairs have been working late nights and weekends to finish the process.
But the public has largely been kept out of the loop: No one was signed up for public comment for either of the Regional Homelessness Authority’s public meetings Thursday. In fact, final meetings to interview and finalize applicants were so rushed and private that they raised questions about whether the authority’s elected leaders may have violated Washington’s open public meetings law.
Public meetings have been announced less than 24 hours before they happened, then changed last-minute because of conflicting schedules, leaving people close to the process and even elected officials confused about what vote was happening when.
On Wednesday, Mayor Jenny Durkan, County Executive Dow Constantine, and other elected leaders who sit on the authority’s governing committee went into a closed meeting with the implementation board to interview Cannon and one other finalist, Marc Dones, one of the architects who designed the authority.
But it’s unclear if the law allows for that, according to two experts in open-government issues. The University of Washington Board of Regents was criticized in 2015 for similarly not conducting a more public process when selecting a new president, which included interviewing finalists out of public view. Many government bodies, including the Kirkland City Council, do so in public, according to Toby Nixon, who serves on the council and is president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Attorney Katherine George said interviews could be considered gathering information about candidates, rather than evaluating their qualifications.
“That’s all they’re allowed to do in a closed meeting, is evaluate the qualifications,” George said. “I think an argument can be made based on the case law that an interview is not evaluating the qualifications of an applicant.”
But Leo Flor, the director of the county’s human services department, said the county and leaders of the regional homelessness authority consulted with the Municipal Research and Services Center and interpret the law differently.
After The Seattle Times asked about the agenda notices going out late, the county — which is separate from the authority but has staffed it and sent out meeting notices while the CEO was being hired — acknowledged there had been multiple mistakes, but Flor said that didn’t invalidate any decisions made in those meetings.
“The point of the [law] is to provide the public with the ability to view business done on its behalf,” Flor said. “There are absolutely times when we did not do that — I want to be clear on that, I want to own that, and we are now, because of your question, fixing it.”
Flor also said Cannon or whoever becomes CEO will also answer to the people of King County in her job.
“This person is going to be living and breathing open public review of their work on an issue that people pay attention to in a way that no one else does, in every day they do this job,” Flor said. “I’m excited to work with Regina if she accepts the position and I know from my experience that the public is going to have a lot of occasion to see how she does her job.”
A previous version of this article misstated Toby Nixon’s credentials; he is the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and a Kirkland city councilmember.