Mayor Jenny Durkan's nominee to head the city Human Services department is being blocked in the Seattle City Council after employees, a union and other groups raised concerns.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s nomination of a new Human Services Department (HSD) director has touched off a clash with Councilmember Kshama Sawant, leading to barbed statements and unrest at the agency responsible for combating Seattle’s homeless crisis.
The dispute points to the growing importance of the department that’s seen its budget grow to nearly $200 million as the city seeks to help thousands of people in shelters and on the street.
When the mayor last month nominated Jason Johnson to lead HSD, she praised him as a “collaborative and experienced leader.” Johnson was an inside hire, having served as the department’s interim director since May and its deputy director before that.
But Sawant has declined to advance the nomination through her human-services committee for council confirmation, citing concerns raised by some HSD employees and social-service providers about the process Durkan used to select Johnson.
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Council members M. Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda wrote to the mayor last week to ask about the same concerns, although other council members back Johnson’s appointment.
“It’s not about any individual,” Sawant said at a briefing Monday. “In my opinion, the correct thing for the council to do is listen to community members and city employees.”
Citing HSD’s high-profile work on homelessness, Sawant and other critics say Durkan should have sought more input from department employees and community members, as her administration did in selecting new leaders for the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Police Department.
Sawant’s stance has drawn a sharp response from Durkan’s office. In a letter to the council member last week, Durkan’s staff urged that Johnson’s nomination be moved ahead and noted that other agency leaders, such as neighborhoods director Andres Mantilla and labor-standards director Marty Garfinkel, were recently confirmed by the council without having gone through public-search processes.
In 10 months as interim director, Johnson has overseen a historic increase in shelter beds and made HSD’s homeless services more effective, the letter said, calling the delay in his confirmation “unfortunate.”
Johnson has undergone an “exhaustive” vetting process by doing his job over the past several months, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said. “It’s time for Councilmember Sawant … to do hers,” he said.
Past mayors similarly have appointed HSD directors without public-search processes, Prentice added.
HSD employees have circulated a petition demanding Durkan retract Johnson’s nomination and undertake a more robust and transparent selection process. Gretchen Waschke, a HSD employee and union steward, said last week that 130 employees had signed the petition.
Several employees spoke against Johnson’s appointment last Thursday at a public meeting called by Sawant. The nomination appeared to unite groups whose criticism of the city’s response to homelessness doesn’t normally align. Members of the Neighborhood Safety Alliance, the Peoples Party and homeless advocates from SHARE/WHEEL also raised objections.
“We need to have a thoughtful and deliberate approach to appointing department directors,” HSD employee Erin Bryant said.
Shani Jones, another HSD employee, urged the council to push back against the nomination. “To appoint a person as the leader of a department that serves a marginalized community without any input from the people who are impacted the most is highly disrespectful,” she said, suggesting the process lacked racial- and social-justice considerations.
After the meeting, Sawant’s office drafted a council resolution calling on the mayor to start over.
The clash over Johnson’s nomination comes at a critical time for HSD, as city and county officials take the first steps toward consolidating what critics have called a “fragmented” and ineffective response to the homelessness crisis.
If confirmed, Johnson would formally assume leadership of the city’s most high-profile agencies. With a budget of around $194 million and nearly 400 full-time employees, HSD oversees the city’s honeycomb of social services that use public dollars to provide services for the homelessness, elderly and families.
Since a state of emergency over homelessness was declared in 2015, and as the number of people living on Seattle streets and alleyways has grown to an estimated 4,500, the department has come under constant pressure to address the rising crisis and address racial disparities among those experiencing homelessness.
Through September 2018, the city doubled the number of Native American and Alaska Native individuals and families who entered housing, officials said. Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk, who has endorsed Johnson’s confirmation, said Seattle’s shift has made a difference.
“A public process is always a good thing,” Echohawk said. But with King County and Seattle readying to join the departments dedicated to fighting homelessness, the situation “requires some stability and knowledge.”
How many on the council will support Sawant’s bid to restart the hiring process remains an open question. Councilmember Lisa Herbold said Monday she would be open to placing expectations on the mayor’s office at the beginning of a search process, but she would be hesitant to start over now.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw backed Johnson as a capable leader.
The council has 10 weeks from receiving the nomination to confirm a nominee for a cabinet-level position. Sawant plans to introduce her resolution next week.