City Departments need directors. So many departments are engaging in work that is incredibly important to communities across Seattle. They are staffed by dedicated public servants. And the residents of our city and staff within departments deserve someone at the helm, providing guidance and support for staff and communities served, and taking responsibility for the department while attempting to implement the policy direction of the Council and Mayor.
At the same time, our elected officials should, at bare minimum, abide by the Race and Social Justice Initiative policies that they have adopted. Whether the 2009 resolution, sponsored by Council President Bruce Harrell, or the more recent Executive Order from Mayor Jenny Durkan, putting words to paper without translating those words into action is useless if we are actively going to at least try to achieve equity in policy development and implementation.
Enter the transmitted appointment by Mayor Durkan of Jason Johnson as permanent Human Services Department Director.
Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) is in a bad place. Through no fault of their own, HSD staff have seen their work elevated and made very public, without the clear caveat that they have been set up to fail. Over the past few years, policy direction has been inconsistent and ever-changing, and whenever there appears to be some level of consensus on a direction, it can change within months.
At the same time, the cumulative impacts of decades of federal disinvestment in affordable housing, state disinvestment in mental healthcare, a lack of accountability for opioid manufacturers, land use and zoning policies that have exacerbated housing affordability (a key driver of homelessness), have created a homelessness emergency. To be clear: the homelessness crises in Seattle and across the country are 100% created by governments looking to shave a buck off of wealthy folks’ tax bills at the expense of those most likely to be on the edge.
So, here we are. A department under fire, with programs that are under-funded, and lack of clear direction from elected officials. This is a recipe for a mess.
It’s no wonder people are frustrated. And this frustration has built up into opposition to the appointment of Jason Johnson as permanent Director for HSD. And most of this is being framed as a process concern, noting what appears to be a lack of adequate process, or even following the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) by the Mayor, prior to her making her decision.
A few things –
First, let’s talk about Jason. I’ve met the guy a few times. During my time with Councilmember Mosqueda, we would meet with HSD, and I always found him to be professional, and saw nothing to suggest he is an incapable administrator. Insofar as he is able to take the direction he is given by policy-makers, or interpret that direction as instructed by the Mayor, he is qualified for the position.
Are there deficiencies in his ability to do the job utilizing an equity lens? Some are reporting that they believe there are. And that perhaps those deficiencies are insurmountable. Yet, we have not seen these deficiencies played out in an appointment process on the legislative side, with that process essentially being ignored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant. If the issue is with Jason’s ability to do the job, then hold a goddamn hearing and discuss his ability to do the job. There are also many who believe he’s actually very good for the job (we just don’t hear from them).
As for the process – I don’t know what the Mayor’s process was prior to selecting Johnson. What has been reported: a Deputy Mayor assured the Change Team (a group of workers voluntarily engaged on racial equity within the department) that there would be an inclusive process, and workers have reported that that promise was empty. Councilmember Sawant’s office repeatedly asked for information on the appointment process, and was reportedly ignored by the Mayor’s office. As Councilmember Herbold noted, at no time did Councilmember Sawant relay her expectations for that search process to the Mayor, which was different from what we have seen other members do. Erica C. Barnett covered this over at the C is for Crank.
The response from Councilmember Sawant suggests that she doesn’t believe it is a big deal that she failed to relay her expectations prior to the appointment being sent down. I disagree. We elect Councilmembers to govern, and we pay them $120,000 per year to do the same. In addition, each office has staff, plus central staff. Communicating with the executive branch, whether you like them or not, is part of that job.
Of course, that isn’t to say the Mayor is without fault. Being non-responsive in response to a member being non-responsive is not very leader-like. I’m reminded of a time I was assigned to a case that had an impending trial date. Opposing counsel was clearly not ready, and was blowing all of their pretrial deadlines. In our office, we considered doing the same, but opted instead to meet the minimum requirement of the court rules. In the end, before Judge Joan DuBuque, we were able to show we did our work, and seeing that the other side didn’t do theirs, Judge DuBuque set in motion a dismissal of their claims. We won. It is good practice in law, it is good practice in lawmaking.
But what about oversight? I wholeheartedly agree that a major component of the job of City Council is to provide oversight of the executive branch, and to ensure that the executive branch is following the policy and procedures adopted by the legislative branch. Here, there is nothing to suggest that the Mayor’s Office failed to follow the proscribed process in place at the time. Did the Mayor’s Office ignore the Mayor’s Executive Order by failing to conduct a Racial Equity Toolkit as part of the appointment selection process? We don’t know, because Councilmember Sawant hasn’t held a proper confirmation hearing.
And that is why I didn’t support the resolution effort in which Councilmember Sawant engaged responding to the nomination. I fall in line with Councilmember Herbold’s take – had there been expectations set prior to the submission of the nomination, that would be one thing. But there wasn’t. And changing the goalposts after the fact is a symptom of the work not being done when it mattered most.
Enter Resolution 31868.
Introduced by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda (my former boss), this piece of legislation actually gets at the issue. By developing a process that is intentionally inclusive of RSJI, and putting the onus on both branches of government engaged in this process, Res. 31868 takes the question of what a process should look like, and creates it. Setting a minimum expectation of what should be considered as part of a selection process, recognizing that each department is different (and the cost associated is different), this puts in place a standard that requires Councilmembers to do their job, and the Mayor’s Office to incorporate the RSJI into more choices that impact our communities. Given the critiques of a Deputy Mayor and the Interim Director of the Office of Civil Rights of the city’s inconsistent application of RSJI, this resolution makes most sense at getting us where we want to be, and having clarity in process moving forward.
I’ve heard concerns raised about this approach, notably that it could deny Mayor’s (current and future) the ability to pick their own Cabinet. Some have compared this to how the President picks the heads of federal agencies. And others have raised the specter of a Council running amok, and constantly changing the goalposts.
On the first question – I respectfully disagree. Setting a base set of expectations ensures that all parties are on the same page. Additionally, this ensures that there is adequate buy-in from communities, providing Mayors an opportunity to bolster their own standing early with picks to head departments, and early opportunity to learn who may be a poor choice, either from an ability perspective or a political perspective.
On the second, our respective processes are wildly different. Seattle City Council doesn’t get reams of writings and emails and background checks in appointment packets. It’s typically a resume, a letter, confirmation that a background check occurred, and maybe one or two other documents. Researching media, writings, and additional information is left to Council to do on its own, and without anywhere near similar resources that the United States Senate has. (But also: wouldn’t it be pretty dope if there was a minimum process expectation for appointment of heads of federal departments that included an RSJI lens?)
On the last – sure, that’s a possibility. But generally, municipal politics are very different from the shit-show we seen nationally, and more often than not, on the issue of process for consideration of department heads, the different branches get along just fine. Implementing a process wherein both sides have to collaborate and come to an agreement on a minimum standard, and having that as part of the nominating packet, is, in my opinion, good governance. And where a member runs amok, a Mayor having the ability to show their work ensures an easier argument about a member being unreasonable might be made.
At the end of the day, we should be incorporating the RSJI in all aspects of policy making. And it should be done at the beginning of policy development, not at the end as a way to “justify” choices already made. Our city has a long way to go to get there, but so long as our elected officials are willing to keep working, and learning when they fail to live up to their own stated expectations, I believe we’ll continue to see progress.