Tonight’s Council committee hearing lasted for two and a half hours. At the end, a resolution was voted out of committee — barely — but the future of Mayor Durkan’s nomination to fill the position of Director of the Human Services Department is as murky as ever.
There was one agenda item for tonight’s meeting: a resolution introduced by committee chair Kshama Sawant to send Durkan’s nomination of interim HSD Director Jason Johnson as permanent Director back to the Mayor’s Office for a do-over with a different selection process. Johnson was nominated on December 19th; to-date Sawant has not scheduled confirmation hearings. Instead, she says that in response to complaints from community members and HSD employees that Durkan did not seek their input before nominating Johnson, she has focused her energy on her resolution rejecting the nomination (without explicitly rejecting the nominee) so that an open, transparent and inclusive search process can be implemented by the Mayor’s Office.
Tonight’s meeting was only attended by three Council members: Sawant, Herbold and Harrell. Half of the time was spent on public comment, a combination of people railing at the process and railing at Johnson himself. That was followed by a chaotic roundtable discussion with representatives from SHARE, the Seattle Indian Center, HSD employees, and the Silence Breakers. The Seattle Indian Center representatives dominated the conversation, angrily denouncing what they saw as broken funding promises by the city (and former HSD Director Catherine Lester) in 2014. While Johnson was not in charge at the time, he was Deputy Director, and one Seattle Indian Center rep argued that he couldn’t be trusted as HSD Director because he was under Lester’s “tutelage.”
Harrell and Herbold were quiet through much of the meeting, but in the last half hour began to speak up. Both agreed with Sawant (as well as many others present) that the Mayor’s process for choosing Johnson was not ideal, but both noted that the city’s laws don’t specify the process by which the Mayor chooses an HSD Director (unlike the police chief, where the City Charter is very specific), and the Council did not communicate any expectations to the Mayor’s Office at the beginning of the process. Because of that, neither felt that it was reasonable to reject the Mayor’s nomination on the grounds of process — but they both supported reviewing and clarifying the expected process for future nominations after the Council gives Johnson an up-or-down vote.
Harrell was also concerned that he was hearing only one side of the story: that there were no supporters of Johnson or the Mayor’s office present. Sawant countered that her staff had invited representatives from the Mayor’s office, but they had not accepted the invitation. In response, Harrell suggested that the meeting was not a welcoming place for Johnson’s supporters (to that point, Sawant’s emailed meeting announcement makes it clear that her mind is made up and what she wanted people to show up and say), noting that he often receives invitations to meetings that he knows are set up to be hostile and simply chooses to pass. For her part, Herbold added that she has a stack of emails from community members and human services providers who support Johnson’s nomination.
The most surreal part of the meeting came near the end, when Sawant wanted to move her resolution out of committee, but it was clear that neither Herbold nor Harrell supported it. Rather than lead on her own initiative or try to convince her Council colleagues, she turned to the audience and asked them if she should bring the resolution up for a vote (the dwindling crowd said “yes”). With Harrell stony-faced and Herbold sitting back with her arms crossed, Sawant moved to vote. She almost didn’t get a second for her motion; after being reminded that she needed one, she asked her colleagues and after a long silence Herbold gave her a “courtesy second'” (something of a tradition among the Council members even when they plan to vote no, if for no other reason than to keep the legislative process moving forward). The final vote was one “yes” (Sawant) and two abstentions (Herbold and Harrell), enough to move it out of committee in the most unenthusiastic manner possible.
This means that the resolution will now come before the full Council for a final vote,
possibly as soon as Monday. UPDATE: a spokesperson for the City Council has confirmed that the resolution is scheduled for the March 4th meeting. The chances of it failing to pass are high, especially since four of Sawant’s colleagues are now lame ducks and don’t need to worry about trying to play nice in the run-up to the elections later this year. If the resolution does fail, it’s unclear what Sawant’s next step will be; she doesn’t seem willing to move Johnson’s confirmation forward against the wishes of her base of supporters (and the City Charter doesn’t specify a time limit on the Council voting on confirmation of a nominee), so her colleagues on the Council may need to pull it out of Sawant’s committee and refer it to a different one to get it moving forward. That’s not unprecedented, but it’s extremely rare to do so over the objections of the committee chair.
This situation is a minefield of issues. The Mayor didn’t run an open, inclusive process, in spite of reports that her office promised stakeholders that there would be one. And according to Sawant, last year her office repeatedly asked the Mayor for details on the selection process she intended to use for HSD Director, but never got a response. But on the flip side, according to the law the Mayor is free to use whatever process she wants to select a nominee, and in this case she chose to give Johnson a trial run for several months as interim Director before deciding that she wanted him permanently in the role. The Council is free to use whatever process it wants in its confirmation process, and can make theirs as open and inclusive as it likes, including involving community members in posing questions to the nominee and critiquing his answers.
Another issue: some of the criticisms raised of Johnson are concerning, in particular those from HSD employees and human services providers who say that he has refused to meet with them, or met with them and was off-putting and dismissive. But they also need to be put into perspective: Johnson has taken a much harder line than his predecessor in driving accountability measures and in using performance metrics to make funding decisions, and it’s clear that many of the providers don’t like that — especially those that lost funding because of it (most notably SHARE, who had a large, vocal presence tonight). To Harrell’s point, it’s important that Johnson get a chance to rebut criticisms raised against him in an environment that isn’t openly hostile to him, and that his supporters also get a chance to tell their stories.
Also: it’s discomforting that the human services providers, who get a large chunk of their funding through HSD, are pushing to have a large role in selecting the next HSD Director. There’s a good case to be made that the inherent conflict of interest makes it inappropriate for them to have a role at all in choosing the person responsible for funding decisions and evaluating their performance. But on the other side, at a time when the city’s (and region’s) homeless response is rightly criticized for being uncoordinated, having an HSD Director who can build strong relationships with service providers is crucial.
But we also must ask: why did the Mayor think that nominating Johnson with little formal input from stakeholders would be acceptable, in the aftermath of the SPD Chief search process fiasco? It may not represent poor leadership by Durkan, but it was certainly a poor choice, having not learned from her earlier mistake.
Finally: what does this say about the kind of government that Seattle wants? Recent polls suggest that Seattle residents are deeply dissatisfied with their elected officials, not so much for ideological reasons but because they’re not making progress on the big issues. But we also consider ourselves stakeholders, and want to be consulted, on seemingly every decision. If Seattle’s government is paralyzed by indecision and slow-moving process, its residents share the blame. And tonight’s committee meeting is Exhibit A for the dysfunction that has become synonymous with the “Seattle process.”