HSD Director nomination avoids a backslide, but still stuck in neutral

By a 3-5 vote, the Council narrowly defeated Council member Sawant’s effort to send Mayor Durkan’s nomination for HSD Director back to her for a do-over.  But that doesn’t mean the nomination has a clear path forward to confirmation.

The debate was contentious and the Council was fractured, but in the end Sawant’s resolution, which would have sent back to Mayor Durkan the nomination of Jason Johnson as HSD Director in order for Durkan to run a full search process, was defeated. Only Sawant, O’Brien and Mosqueda voted for it (Harrell was absent today, but if present he almost certainly would have voted against it based on his comments at the committee hearing).

Sawant argued that there was no reason for the controversy, other than that “the Mayor has decided to go nuclear over it.” She cited what she saw as “widespread concern” over the nomination, while holding up a petition signed by HSD workers.

Mosqueda recognized that “The Mayor gets to nominate someone, and the Council gets to run a confirmation process,” but voted for the resolution because she believed that it was imperative to go back and ask for “a more inclusive process,” ensuring that impacted communities have a seat at the table.

Both (Rob) Johnson and Bagshaw said that despite rhetoric to the contrary, the debate had become a proxy for Jason Johnson himself, and not the Mayor’s process for choosing him (he served as interim Director for several months, which Durkan said she considered to be an audition for the job). Both said that they had worked closely with Johnson over the past few years and he had their support. “We have a great man in charge,” Bagshaw said. Johnson noted that the Council members had received a large number of emails and letters from constituents, human services providers, and other stakeholders who supported the nomination and urged the Council to confirm.

Mosqueda took the additional step of introducing this afternoon a resolution that would clarify expectations on the Mayor for the search process for department head nominations. It revises and expands an existing resolution, passed in 2007. But the 2007 version predated many of the adopted practices of the Mayor and Council, including the widespread application of the Race and Social Justice Initiative.

Mosqueda’s resolution, which skips committee hearings and goes directly to the full Council for consideration on March 18, does several things:

  • It specifies that the Mayor should submit to the Council materials detailing the planned recruitment process before submitting an initial nomination (not a re-appointment). Those materials should minimally include a written description of the process, a list of any advisory groups to be consulted, and the composition of those advisory groups.
  • It requires the Mayor to additionally submit in the nomination packet a memo describing the process used to identify and recommend candidates (again, not for re-appointments).
  • It articulates a set of general criteria that the Council may use when evaluating the adequacy of a recruitment process, including utilization of the Racial Equity Toolkit, and inclusion of affected constituencies and groups in reviewing and interviewing potential candidates.

Mosqueda is still gathering input on the resolution, and is hoping to get the Mayor’s buy-in. That might be a tall order, as it raises a separation-of-powers issue: the City Charter says little about how the Mayor should select candidates to nominate, other than for the Chief of Police. While the City Council can use whatever process it wants to define its own confirmation process, there are limits to the burdens and restrictions it can unilaterally place on the Mayor’s part of this process. Granted, most of the new requirements on the Mayor in Mosqueda’s resolution are “meta” in that they require descriptions of processes, but they also require a new level of transparency (and process micro-management) that the Mayor’s Office may not like. And there is a healthy debate to be had, with strong arguments on both sides, over how much transparency should exist in the Mayor’s recruitment process — as last year’s search for a Chief of Police demonstrated.

Mosqueda’s resolution, however, is a long-term fix for issues with the nomination process. In the short term, Jason Johnson’s nomination is still stuck in the mud. Sawant failed in her bid to send it back to Durkan, but the nomination has still been referred to her committee — and she has certainly shown no enthusiasm for scheduling hearings and a vote. It may languish there until the Mayor retracts it, or Sawant’s colleagues vote to pull it back from her committee and refer it to another committee — or to the full Council directly. There is no work yet on whether the Council members are willing to take that step.