Mayor Jenny Durkan will withdraw her nominee for director of the Seattle Human Services Department, leaving unresolved the question of who will permanently oversee the city’s response to the homelessness crisis.
Jason Johnson will continue in his role as interim director through next year, as Seattle joins with King County to create a new regional homeless services authority, according to the mayor’s office. Citing the city code outlining the process for filling vacant administrative positions, the mayor’s office said there’s no time limit on how long Johnson can remain interim director.
Johnson was tapped for promotion in December, but his nomination stalled amid concerns raised by some HSD employees, social-service providers and several City Council members about the process the Durkan administration used to select him.
Durkan on Monday accused council members of dragging their feet to fill one of the city’s most high-profile administrative positions, singling out Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who declined to advance Johnson’s nomination through her human-services committee for council confirmation.
“The Council’s failure to follow its own procedures or give Jason a fair confirmation process has been harmful to the work of the Human Services Department, impaired our effort to respond to the homelessness crisis and has been deeply unfair to a person that has served this city tirelessly on one of the toughest issues facing our city, region and country,” Durkan said in a released statement.
Johnson, who withdrew as part of a mutual agreement with Durkan, has led the department since former HSD Director Catherine Lester stepped down last year. An inside hire, Durkan described him as a “collaborative and experienced leader.”
But shortly after Johnson’s nomination some HSD employees began pushing back against his selection, criticizing his leadership and circulating a petition demanding Durkan start the search process over.
As still other HSD employees and service providers expressed support for Johnson’s selection, Sawant sponsored a resolution calling on the Durkan administration to rescind his nomination and undertake a more robust and transparent selection process. The council ultimately rejected the measure and agreed to move forward with the confirmation process. After several weeks and one public hearing, Johnson’s nomination appeared to stall a second time.
Sawant called the mayor’s decision to withdraw the nomination a victory for “grassroots organizing.”
“I now urge the Mayor to support my resolution, which calls for a full, open, and transparent search for a new Human Services department director — inclusive of workers, union members, community members, and service providers,” Sawant said in a written statement.
Durkan’s office informed City Council members of Johnson’s withdrawal from consideration via email Monday.
Seattle Times reporter Vianna Davila contributed to this report.