Mayor Jenny Durkan's pick to lead the Human Services Department is facing a major barrier to the new gig: Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant.
Jason Johnson has been acting as the interim director of the Human Services Department since May. Last month, Durkan announced he would also be her nominee to lead the department permanently.
But Sawant heads the human services committee, which would sign off on Johnson's appointment. After calls from HSD employees and community members, she is now proposing a resolution for a different hiring process—one that involves nonprofit groups and those who experienced homelessness in a formal search.
Some HSD employees and service providers appeared at the public hearing on Monday to support Sawant's move, saying that the process should involve community members and a transparent process for the sake of racial equity; other senior staffers had sent a letter to Durkan showing support for Johnson.
"I'm just asking for y'all to listen and to consider the words of your constituents," Jayme Helgeson, who works in aging and disability services at HSD, told the council members on Monday. "Time and time again, [Johnson] had chosen to not listen to those of us who had concerns."
Johnson was an internal hire, and the mayor found nominees for other department heads—like the Seattle Department of Transportation and the IT Department—after a national search. Sawant in an email last week said the HSD director "should at least go through the kind of rigorous search process as used by the mayor's office in nominating directors of other key high-impact city departments."
Anthony Auremmia, a representative from the mayor's office, sent a strongly worded letter to Sawant two weeks ago, saying it was "unacceptable" that the council member would delay hiring for such a key position. Durkan also appealed to council members to support Johnson.
“While the mayor has had a thoughtful hiring process for each of her appointments, Councilmember Sawant, who fires and hires staff at the direction of an outside political committee, is refusing to move forward on confirming a qualified LGBTQ candidate who has a proven record, including over the last year as interim director," Mark Prentice, spokesperson for the mayor's office said in an emailed statement to PubliCola.
"Jason has gone through the most exhaustive and exhausting process by actually doing his job. It’s time for Councilmember Sawant to do hers.”
The HSD director would play a critical role in the city's response to homelessness. In her letter to council members, Durkan said she has often chosen "uniquely qualified" internal hires as department heads, and Johnson has faced the most scrutiny among directors.
Some from HSD on Monday called for a search process to resolve what has been a divisive nomination for their department. Sawant's committee will consider her proposed resolution on Tuesday next week.
"If we are serious about racial justice, racial equity, we have to have different kinds of processes," said Mary Flowers, an HSD employee. "We don't want it to split our department because we have very dedicated people."