John Okamoto, a veteran of city and state leadership posts, will serve on the Seattle City Council through the end of the year.
John Okamoto, a veteran of several leadership posts in local government, will serve temporarily on the Seattle City Council until after a new, permanent member is elected in November, the council decided Monday.
In a 5-3 vote, and despite fierce opposition from Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the council appointed Okamoto to fill Sally Clark’s vacant seat. Clark resigned this month to work at the University of Washington.
Okamoto previously served as the city’s human-resources director and its engineering director. He was one of 44 who applied to fill the vacancy, and one of eight finalists selected by the council. His most recent job, from last August to February, was interim director of the Seattle Human Services Department.
Mayor Ed Murray gave Okamoto that gig. The Seattle native was widely considered Murray’s preferred replacement for Clark.
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Council President Tim Burgess, who voted for Okamoto with council members Jean Godden, Sally Bagshaw, Tom Rasmussen and Bruce Harrell, said he was looking for an experienced “caretaker” until November.
Burgess described Okamoto as an individual with a “very, very short learning curve.” Okamoto has worked as regional administrator for the state Department of Transportation, chief administrative officer of the Port of Seattle and executive director of the Washington Education Association.
Okamoto, as requested by Burgess, promised he wouldn’t seek election to a permanent seat on the council this fall.
Before beating Sharon Maeda, who received three votes in the final tally, Okamoto sat stone-faced while Sawant hurled invective his way.
“We need someone who will fight tooth and nail for affordable housing,” Sawant said. “What we do not need is another politician who represents the interests of big developers, big business and the superwealthy,” she went on. “(Okamoto) presided over the Port of Seattle, which was a cesspool of corruption when he was the chief administrative officer.”
During Okamoto’s Port tenure, 2003 to 2008, an outgoing CEO was paid $340,000 after retiring and investigators found instances of fraud in the Port’s construction activities. Okamoto wasn’t named in either case.
But he was criticized in a 2007 report on sexually explicit and racist emails sent by Port police. The report said Port executives, including Okamoto, showed poor judgment in allowing Port police to investigate their members.
Okamoto, in an email to Rasmussen, said Port police didn’t report to him.
Rasmussen defended Okamoto, noting his support from well-known community activists such as Estella Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza.
“Is she in the pocket of big business and developers? I don’t think so,” he said.
Okamoto afterward said Sawant’s accusations were “disappointing” and “in many cases … absolutely false.” He called the appointment a dream.
“I have nothing against John,” said Maeda, a former communications consultant and union-nonprofit director, recalling that she taught Okamoto in Sunday school when he was a boy. “I think it was an uphill battle because he was the inside candidate.”