This morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she is withdrawing the nomination of Jason Johnson as permanent Director of the Human Services Department, though he will continue on as interim Director.
Here is Mayor Durkan’s official statement:
Led by Councilmember Sawant, the City Council has politicized and failed to act on the confirmation of one of the most important roles in Seattle today: the person who oversees our City’s day-to-day work to prevent and respond to homelessness. The Council’s failure to follow its own procedures or give Jason a fair confirmation process has been harmful to the work of the Human Services Department, impaired our effort to respond to the homelessness crisis and has been deeply unfair to a person that has served this city tirelessly on one of the toughest issues facing our city, region and country. It is little wonder that many good people won’t consider public service.
Jason has the support of many, including a range of organizations and people who have worked with him in serving our most vulnerable people. Yet Council never gave a chance for these voices to be heard. Over the last year, Jason has delivered on improving our response and in setting the framework for bigger changes to the City’s homelessness response. He implemented changes to our contracting to require more accountability, oversaw a significant transformation of our emergency response to provide significantly more enhanced shelters, and increased our shelter capacity by almost 25 percent. He also was key in guiding the One Table process, which set the framework for the move to regional governance.
After 112 days and no clear path forward to even a vote, this never-ending confirmation “process” needs to end. I have heard directly from HSD employees that it has been divisive and a distraction to the work of the Human Services Department on issues like homelessness, supporting LGBTQ youth, and serving seniors. That is why Jason and I have made the decision that the work must come first and have our full energies and attention. Together, we decided to withdraw his nomination before Council to allow him and the Department to focus on the work. Jason will continue as Director of the department, which he has done successfully already over the last year. I continue to believe that Jason is the right leader for this role. Jason has brought his life experience, and heart and soul, to his work.
I respect Council’s independent role and have valued their great work that we have done together, including free college and transit for youth, gun violence prevention, historic implementation of MHA and worker protections. I look forward to our continued partnership on a range of issues and am confident there is much we can do together. But in the face of inaction, I will act. Too much work needs to be done.
Last week, Erica Barnett reported that Johnson’s confirmation had stalled out for lack of majority support among the City Council members. I reached out to Council member Bagshaw, who had been shepherding the confirmation process, last week and she declined to comment on the status of his nomination. This morning’s meeting of the Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability, which had heard earlier hearings on his confirmation after it was removed from Council member Sawant’s committee, did not include the confirmation on the agenda.
A spokesperson for the Mayor confirmed that Johnson will serve as interim Director throughout 2020.
That is not an entirely unreasonable approach, given that Seattle, King County and other local jurisdictions are in the process of establishing a regional governance model for the homelessness response, by far the largest budget item in HSD’s portfolio and one that may get extracted out of HSD and moved to the new regional organization. Durkan’s spokesperson said that the 2020 timeframe for Johnson is “linked to our best understanding of regional governance timing,” and that the Mayor intends to re-assess the needs of the department after that process has run its course before a possible new nomination as permanent HSD Director.
That said, the Mayor has effectively done an end-run around the Council confirmation process by appointing Johnson for an indefinite-length interim director role. This is particularly eyebrow-raising given that Durkan and Johnson have suggested before that the low morale among HSD employees is due in part to lack of permanent leadership for the department.
I have an inquiry in to the City Council for responses to the Mayor’s announcement this morning.