The next director of the department will take over at a time when it's facing increasing scrutiny and demand for results amid a worsening homelessness crisis that has seen the city's unsheltered population reach almost 4,500 at the start of 2018.
An effort by some Seattle City Council members to derail Mayor Jenny Durkan’s nominee for a new Human Services Department director failed on Monday, leaving the nomination process for the city’s top post charged with fighting homelessness at a standstill.
The City Council rejected a resolution calling for Durkan to restart the search for a director by a vote of 5-3, meaning Jason Johnson, the agency’s interim director and Durkan’s nominee to take over the position permanently, will remain in his post.
The measure’s failure maintains the status quo in a months-old clash between Durkan and Councilmember Kshama Sawant over the direction of the agency. The next director of the department will take over at a time when it’s facing increasing scrutiny and demand for results amid a worsening homelessness crisis that has seen the city’s unsheltered population reach almost 4,500 at the start of 2018.
Sawant has said that her opposition of Johnson was based on complaints from HSD employees that the search process lacked transparency and consideration of social justice and racial equity.
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Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who voted against the resolution, said she supports transparency and inclusion, but the “appropriate time to raise these issues is at the beginning” of the search process.
Johnson’s nomination has lingered since December, when Durkan tapped him to become permanent HSD director. Johnson, whom Durkan praised as a “collaborative and experienced leader,” has led the department since former HSD director Catherine Lester stepped down last year.
But several groups, including the Seattle Human Services Coalition, leaders from homeless service providers SHARE and WHEEL and a vocal group of HSD employees raised concerns about Johnson’s stewardship of the department and the process used to select him.
Sawant declined to advance the nomination through her human services committee, touching off a political fight between herself and Durkan’s office. Her resolution called on the mayor to make the selection process public, and to implement race and social-justice principles critics of the nomination say were bypassed or ignored.
In a letter sent last month, Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong said it’s disappointing that Sawant “has ignored the council’s own practice and rules regarding confirmations and has abdicated a core responsibility.”
The resolution is “only controversial because the mayor has decided to go nuclear over it,” Sawant said at Monday’s council meeting. The request is reasonable and reflects principles the city has already adopted, she said.
Following the vote, city spokesman Mark Prentice thanked the council for rejecting Sawant’s measure and urged members to schedule an up or down vote on Johnson’s confirmation. “Continued delay is unfair to Jason, a disservice to the City of Seattle, and wrong for Human Services Department and the many people who rely on its work,” he said in a released statement.
Tensions over Johnson’s nomination were further heightened last week when HSD moved to end contracts with controversial homelessness service providers SHARE and WHEEL. The groups, which operate several shelters for homeless people throughout Seattle, have weathered several recent attempts by city officials to cut or zero out their funding over concerns around data quality and performance outcomes.
City spokeswoman Meg Olberding said the city views both SHARE and WHEEL as valued partners in the fight against homelessness. The groups’ most recent contracts were split into two six-month periods to “incentivize” further performance improvements, Olberding said in a letter to City Council members. Sawant called the timing of the moves “questionable.”
While it’s not uncommon for department heads to be confirmed without a public, competitive process, critics of Johnson’s nomination have accused Durkan of neglecting to meet with service providers and other stakeholders in Seattle’s broad effort to combat and prevent homelessness. HSD employees have circulated a petition demanding Durkan retract Johnson’s nomination and undertake a more robust and transparent selection process.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda during Monday’s meeting introduced a draft resolution that calls on the mayor’s office to disclose details of how future searches for department directors will be conducted before they’re nominated.