Seattle City Council Rejects Resolution to Restart Human Services Department Director Hiring Process

by Emerald Staff

An effort to block the appointment of Jason Johnson as the head of the Human Services Department failed March 4 in a Seattle City Council meeting.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution that would send the appointment of Johnson back to Mayor Jenny Durkan for a complete search and hiring process involving community members and stakeholders in the process.

The resolution failed in a 3-to-6 vote. Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Mike O’Brien, and Sawant voted in favor. Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Lorena González, Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson, and Debora Juarez opposed.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has the authority to appoint department heads, which the Seattle City Council will confirm in a public process. The mayor will sometimes hold a larger search process that can include community panels, but also may appoint someone without that process.

Jason Johnson has been serving as interim director of the Human Services Department for the last year since Catherine Lester stepped down in 2018.

Groups including SHARE/WHEEL, the Seattle Human Services Coalition, the Seattle Silence Breakers and the Transit Riders Union opposed the appointment of Johnson without a full search process. PROTEC17, a union representing Human Services Department workers, among others, opposed the appointment without the process and submitted a petition signed by 130 Human Services Department staff members.

Others supported Johnson’s appointment, including the Alliance for Pioneer Square, Solid Ground, Chief Seattle Club, and Catholic Community Services backed Johnson’s appointment.

Anti-racist advocates and homelessness advocates wanted a more competitive process that incorporated the city’s own Race and Social Justice Initiative. While some took issue directly with Johnson’s appointment based on his tenure over the last six years at the Human Services Department, others questioned the lack of process and the fact that his appointment apparently was not put through a race-equity lense, particularly given the diverse population that the department serves.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda highlighted the concern about the process and has also proposed a resolution to improve future appointments.

“This is a question about the process, whether we got it right and whether it was inclusive,” Mosqueda said before voting in favor of Sawant’s resolution to send Johnson’s appointment back to the mayor.

Councilmembers in favor of the appointment highlighted Johnson’s experience in the department and cited social service organizations that back him.

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