Amid homelessness tensions, Seattle inches forward in confirming human services head | KNKX

Amid homelessness tensions, Seattle inches forward in confirming human services head

Mar 5, 2019

A divided Seattle City Council is trying to push forward in confirming the mayor's pick for human services director, but it's unclear what the next move is. The new director will have a big say in how the city tackles the ongoing homelessness crisis.

Jason Johnson has been the interim director since May 2018. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Johnson as her permanent pick on Dec. 19, and he's been awaiting council confirmation since then.

But the nomination was criticized by some service providers and some within the city's Human Services Department. The critiques have ranged from personal issues with Johnson himself, disagreements over the department's homeless strategies, and problems with a process that some consider opaque.

In response, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant sponsored a resolution that would have asked the mayor to go back and do a more formal search with more input from these groups. But the resolution failed Monday in a 5-3 council vote.

"I wouldn't have brought this resolution forward were it not representative of what hundreds of community members and HSD employees want," Sawant told reporters shortly before the vote.

During public comment Monday, several department employees did say the mayor's nomination was not transparent. But other employees urged the council to move forward in confirming Johnson.

"Please confirm him, and let us get back to work," said Krista Diaz, a human services employee.

A majority of the city council agreed, saying issues with the mayor's process should have been brought up earlier and that issues with the candidate himself should be brought up during normal confirmation hearings. 

But as chair of the human services committee, it's still up to Sawant to continue the confirmation process.

"I will not be bringing that appointment forward," Sawant said. "However, there's nothing to stop the rest of the council and the council president from doing this through another council office."

The council could vote to move the appointment out of Sawant's committee. It's unclear how much longer this procedural shuffling could delay Johnson's confirmation.

In addition to issues around process and personnel, the fight over who will lead the Human Services Department appears to be a proxy for divisions over the city's appoach to the homelessness crisis, which has drawn criticism on many fronts.

One controversial move has been shifting resources from emergency services to services that help transition people to permanent housing. City officials have said the shift is about being more efficient with resources and taking a more evidence-based approach.

But providers at risk of losing funding have been vocally pushing back. Some of these same providers have opposed Johnson's appointment as human services director.