Conflict brews between Mayor Durkan and Sawant over homelessness

Feb 6, 2019, 2:11 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2019, 10:59 am
Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Kshama Sawant...
(Getty Images, AP)
(Getty Images, AP)

A conflict is beginning to form between Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Kshama Sawant, over the mayor’s appointment of a new Human Services Director.

RELATED: Seattle homelessness in-fighting pits Sawant vs. Durkan

Durkan recently tapped HSD interim director Jason Johnson to permanently lead the department tasked with combating homelessness in Seattle.

Sawant is in turn stalling the nomination process in her committee, objecting to the way Durkan chose Johnson, claiming it was too secretive and didn’t included community buy-in.

To understand this conflict, we need to rewind a little for some context.

Barbara Poppe is a consultant who was hired back in 2016 by the City of Seattle to produce a report about how to help solve the homeless in our region. Among her recommendations was a unified, accountable, dynamic and regional approach to the crisis.

A little over two years later, homelessness has increased by 4 percent in King County. Poppe says progress has been made, but there’s still much work to be done.

“There have been many different points of view on city council as well as through all the different mayors that you had,” she said. “The other thing that has happened, is that city councils have stepped outside whatever the mayors’ plans have been to address homelessness, and funded their favorite organizations, or what they thought were worthy projects.

“I think that there hasn’t been a disciplined approach to really ensuring that taxpayer dollars are invested in the programs that get the greatest results.” she added.

I asked Kevin Schofield, the proprietor of Seattle City Council Insight, for some insight into a dissonance brewing between Durkan and Sawant, over the mayors’ choice to nominate a new Human Services Director.

That discussion illustrated the point: To understand the homelessness crisis in our region, you have to peel back the layers.

First, a little background: A year after Poppe’s report, the city re-bid its contracts for the first time in a decade to non-profits with a focus on accountability. Non-profit Share/Wheel was denied a contract at first, through a process that Sawant objected to.

“At some level, they were kind of mocking the whole system,” said Schofield. “They don’t agree that there should be any performance metrics, they got in a big long argument over whether the city was misreading the data. They have a whole history of financial mismanagement and other issues.

But, that didn’t last long.

“But then the city council came back around and said ‘we want the city to fund them anyway,'” Schofield described.

That came about when a number of faith-based organizations running day shelters came out in support of Share/Wheel.

RELATED: Share/Wheel cuts out early on tiny house village 

And here’s where there’s another layer.

Catherine Lester left last spring as the Human Services Director. HSD is responsible for investing over $130 million in contracts to more than 170 community-based human service providers that support the city’s homeless.

Deputy Director Jason Johnson was appointed by Mayor Durkan as the interim director. In December, Durkan officially nominated Johnson to be the Human Services Department Director. That appointment needs to be approved by the city council.

But Sawant is holding up that process. Recently, she held a public hearing.

“She got a number of people from the community and some people who are actual employees of the Human Services Department showing up and actually criticizing Johnson, which seems a little unfair, given that she particularly did not invite Johnson, and said publicly that this is not going to be about Johntson,” said Schofield.

Now, Sawant has a resolution that will be voted on sometime in the next couple weeks, that would send the nomination back to Durkan, asking for a full search and vetting process for the position.

Sawant’s resolution was referred by the council to her committee, which meets at 6 p.m. on Feb. 12 to take it up.

The mayor’s office issued a statement responding to the resolution.

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. Jason has gone through the most exhaustive and exhausting process by actually doing his job. It’s time for Councilmember Sawant — who has been absent as chair of her committee — to do hers.

In that statement, Mayor Durkan’s office is referring to a report from SCC Insight alleging that Socialist Alternative — an outside political interest group — wields “decision-making authority over the running and staffing of Sawant’s office.”

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Conflict brews between Mayor Durkan and Sawant over homelessness