Honor racial and social justice: My letter to Mayor Durkan, calling on her to include the community and workers in a comprehensive search for a permanent Human Services Department director

Home » Honor racial and social justice: My letter to Mayor Durkan, calling on her to include the community and workers in a comprehensive search for a permanent Human Services Department director

I have written a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan, explaining why I have not advanced her nomination of a permanent director of the Human Services Department, and calling on her to involve city workers, the community, and human service providers in an open, transparent, and inclusive candidate search.


February 7, 2019

Dear Mayor Durkan,

Thank you for your letter describing your decision to nominate Mr. Jason Johnson to direct the City of Seattle Human Services Department (HSD). I am writing to respond to some of your assertions, and to recommend steps that you can take to nominate – after which the Council can confirm – a permanent Director with the support and confidence of affected communities.

In response to the considerable public testimony from HSD employees and members of the PROTEC17 union, human service providers, and community members, my office has brought forward a resolution that recommends an inclusive search to find the next HSD Director, and that the search itself reflect the principles of the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) agreed upon by the City of Seattle. The resolution will be discussed at the City Council’s Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renters Rights Committee, which I chair, on Tuesday February 12 at 6:00PM in chambers. I urge that a representative from your office join us at the table to answer questions and to listen.

Seattle faces a huge and growing housing affordability and homelessness crisis. The for-profit market has no solution, and the city urgently needs a major expansion of high-quality publicly-owned affordable housing. We also need to fully fund social services. Neither is possible without taxing big business and the wealthy. However, because the political establishment, starting with your office, has utterly failed to do that, it forces City employees and community providers to tackle this crisis with gravely insufficient resources. It’s especially vital in this context that the permanent HSD Director be selected with the full engagement of staff, human service providers, and community members.

Regardless of what one thinks about Mr. Johnson’s qualifications, it’s quite clear that your office has failed to use an inclusive approach to candidate search. Indeed, it appears you have not conducted any search at all. That is a disservice to HSD workers, human service providers, and to the most vulnerable in our community.

My office has been asking you for public community engagement in the nomination of a future HSD Director for the past year. On March 23, 2018, Ted Virdone from my office emailed your Director of Legislative Affairs, inquiring:

“People are asking us about the appointment process for the new HSD Director. Have you had a chance to get any information about that? We would love to have someone from the Mayor’s Office brief the Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renter Rights committee about the intended process at some point before Director Lester’s last day.”

Your refusal to involve the public and key community and workforce representatives in any meaningful search has resulted in a nomination beset with community outrage. Last week the members of the HSD Change Team and caucuses wrote to Council to inform us that in 2018:

“Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, representing the Mayor’s Office, stated to staff at an HSD division meeting, there would be an inclusive process for the selection of the permanent Director. Many in the department had confidence that that type of process would take place. Instead, staff learned Mayor Durkan made the decision to directly appoint our interim Director into a permanent position—foregoing an inclusive process that many believed would take place.”

If you have reviewed the Seattle Channel video of the January 24 meeting of the Human Services, Equitable Development, and Renters Rights committee, you will have observed a room overflowing with the people who do extraordinary work every day to make human services available in Seattle. You will have seen that 34 of 35 speakers testified against moving Mr. Johnson’s nomination forward at this time, and in favor of an open, transparent, and inclusive approach that incorporates RSJI principles to searching for the future HSD Director. It is unfortunate that your office declined to send a representative to the committee.

The RSJI-related concerns are captured clearly in a letter from an HSD worker to City Council:

“The RSJI cannot remain something that is only implemented when convenient for those in power.”

The letter from your office objects at length to no official confirmation hearing being scheduled. My office has, of course, prioritized outreach to community members to get their input, and to make my committee meetings accessible to them. Since you announced the nomination of Mr. Johnson, my staff and I have met with dozens of HSD workers and their union PROTEC17, along with human service providers and their organization, the Seattle Human Services Coalition (SHSC).

As you know, the SHSC, representing 180 human service providers in Seattle, wrote council on January 15, 2019 to say,

“The Seattle Human Services Coalition urges the Seattle City Council to return the nomination to Mayor Durkan and request a full search process that includes integral participation of human service providers, program participants, HSD employees, and other public partners.”

Your approach for HSD Director nomination stands in striking contrast to the nomination of Mr. Sam Zimbabwe as the Director of SDOT. As the recent press release from your office announced:
“In May, Mayor Durkan announced a search committee that included nearly a dozen business, transportation, labor, and community leaders. The search for a new Director of SDOT also included an extensive community outreach process. After conducting interviews with applicants, the Search Committee submitted their recommendations for finalists to Mayor Durkan, who interviewed the finalists earlier this month.”

My resolution urges you to convene a search committee that includes representatives of non-profit human services providers, individuals who have or are experiencing homelessness and other clients of HSD, and representatives of HSD employees selected by PROTEC17 and the HSD Change Team and Caucuses.
Then, in line with the search committee’s recommendations, you would send a nomination to Council for confirmation, and Council could proceed to consider the confirmation of that nominee with the confidence that the individual had been recommended by a search committee that represented Seattle’s impacted communities.

I urge you to listen to the HSD workers and their union, the community, and the human service providers and support this approach. Your concurrence would make clear to the public that you agree to support and include them in this decision. Please let my office know if you will be concurring, and we will amend the resolution to reflect your support. And I hope we’ll have a representative from your office at the February 12 committee.

Thank you,

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Seattle District 3