Notes from today’s Council meetings

Here’s what happened at today’s Council meetings today.

This morning, the Council got a briefing  from the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations on the current state legislative session underway in Olympia. OIR staff reported that with the Democrats controlling both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s office, bills are being introduced at a furious pace, with over 1500 introduced so far. The number of active bills will get cut down singificantly at the end of February, when the first legislative deadline hits: the point at which any bill (except those essential to the budget) must have been passed out of its house of origin.  You can follow the weekly OIR bulletins on the state of play on bills the city cares about here. 

Council member announced that at his Governance, Equity and Technology Committee hearing next week, he intends to take up several appointees to the surveillance working group, as well as an appointment to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

Council members Herbold and O’Brien both noted that this Friday there is a meeting of the Sound Transit “Elected Leadership Group” to review the “level 3” proposed alignments of light rail to Ballard and West Seattle.

O’Brien also noted that at tomorrow’s Sustainability and Transportation meeting he will begin consideration of the Mayor’s appointment of Sam Zimbabwe as Director of SDOT.  Zimbabwe will make a second appearance on February 15th, and O’Brien intends to bring his confirmation to a vote in committee on that day.

The big topic of discussion at this morning’s Council Briefing was the pending appointment of Jason Johnson as Director of the Human Services Department. Johnson currently is serving at interim Director, a post he has held for nearly a year. His confirmation is being processed through Council member Sawant’s committee; Sawant, however, is slow-walking it and raising questions about the process Mayor Durkan used to arrive at Johnson as her choice. Last Thursday she held an evening public hearing to provide a forum for community members, human-services providers, and HSD employees who wished to express concerns about the nomination process and a desire for a more “inclusive and transparent process” — or even a full national search. Despite assurances in advance by Sawant that the hearing wasn’t about Johnson himself and that he didn’t need to attend, many of the commenters chose to bash Johnson. Also notable was the oversized presence of SHARE residents, who have repeatedly clashed with HSD and other local government agencies over the past several years. There is clearly no love lost between Johnson and SHARE; Johnson has previously defended the city’s RFP process in which SHARE’s funding was discontinued; Sawant, however, has championed SHARE and successfully fought last fall to get their funding reinstated in the Council’s budget process.

It’s unclear how many of Sawant’s Council colleagues share her perspective. Both Council President Harrell and Council member Herbold have voiced their reluctance to second-guess Durkan. This morning, Herbold stated that if the Council has views on how an appointment process should be conducted by the Mayor, that needs to be communicated at the beginning of the process. She cited the examples of the Office of Civil Rights, where the Council passed a resolution to voice its expectations; and the recent Chief of Police appointment, where the process is laid out in the City Charter. Sawant countered that her office asked the Mayor’s Office repeatedly for several weeks for details on the process they intended to use, but received no response. She also said that it is difficult for HSD employees to speak up, and that several have privately expressed to her that they were worried about retaliation.

This morning Sawant circulated a draft resolution that she intends to introduce next week. It does two things:

  • It declares that the Council will not take action on any nomination for HSD Director until the Mayor completes a formal search process “that comports with the goals and priorities of the City’s Race and Social Justice Initiative.”
  • It requests the Mayor to convene a search committee, including representatives from nonprofit human services providers, individuals experiencing homelessness and other HSD clients, and HSD employees selected by their union.

Again, it is unclear how much support Sawant’s resolution will have from her colleagues, or what her next move will be if the resolution fails. While Sawant has been a consistent proxy for human services providers in city decision-making and it will be important to seek input from those providers, it’s not a good look to give organizations that receive funding from HSD a formal say in choosing the new Director of that organization. Between that and forcing the issue on Durkan’s selection process, Sawant may find herself standing alone. However, given that she controls her committee’s agenda, she could stall out Johnson’s confirmation process even if she doesn’t get her way with the resolution. To move it forward in spite of her, the other eight Council members would need to vote to take the confirmation out of her committee and refer it to a different one. Council member Bagshaw has already voiced her strong support for Johnson, and said this morning that she has heard from “dozens” of human services providers who also support him.

Last Thursday, Mayor Durkan replied to an earlier letter from Council members Gonzalez and Mosqueda, defending her nomination of Johnson and the process she used, and asking the Council to move forward with confirmation.  Among her points:

  • She argues that the months that Johnson has spent as interim Director since last May was her opportunity to ensure that he was ready to take on the job as permanent Director. She notes that he had his predecessor’s full support when he stepped in as interim Director, he is an “LGBTQ leader” who has focused on LGBTQ youth and seniors and the impacts of homelessness on LGBTQ individuals, and he has received support from “many community organizations.”
  • She points to specific successes he has hade in 2018, including homeless shelter expansion, increased exits from homelessness for native and black/African American populations, and engaging with regional partners.
  • She asserts that while has been serving as interim Director, she has received “extremely positive feedback from organizations, community members, and providers.”
  • She notes that she has made appointments in the last year using search committees, but also many without one. Despite the lack of a formal search committee for this appointment, Durkan argues that because he was serving as interim Director, “Jason had perhaps the most scrutiny over the past 10 months” compared to the other candidates.
  • She criticizes the Council, and Sawant, for not scheduling hearings yet for Johnson. “In fact,” Durkan says, “the Chair of the Committee has only had two meetings since August, including one meeting in September and one meeting last week.”  To be fair, much of that time the Council was focused on the budget, and by its own rules none of the committees meet during budget discussions. but Durkan also criticizes Sawant for declining multiple times to meet with Johnson until last week.

The same day, Durkan’s Director of Legislative Affairs, Anthony Auriemma, sent a substantially similar letter directly to Sawant urging her to schedule Johnson’s confirmation hearings. “It is unacceptable,” Auriemma says, “that you would delay filling a key position tasked with assisting our most vulnerable and overseeing the City’s homelessness response, a defining issue of our time.

Sawant’s resolution will be introduced next Monday and could be voted on as soon as that same afternoon.

Finally: a shout-out to Council Central Staff member Patricia Lee, who is retiring on Thursday after 20 years on the Council staff. This afternoon, the Council proclaimed today Patricia Lee Day in her honor. She is truly an awesome public servant and deserves every last bit of the mountain of praise that was heaped upon her today.