August 13, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 33

News

Seattle’s Human Services Department gets another leader — for the moment

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

Finding the right human resource for the HSD

HSD Interim Director John Okamoto

Photo by Ken Astrein

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A man with decades of executive experience but little background in social services is now in charge of Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD).

Mayor Ed Murray’s July 23 appointment of John Okamoto is the latest turn in what has become a revolving door. HSD has had five directors since 2008. Three of the directors, including Okamoto, were interim or acting directors.

Murray has placed the search for a permanent director on hold and plans to appoint someone in the middle of 2015, he said.

The lack of stability at HSD’s top job, which involves overseeing a staff of 330 people and a budget of $124 million, is not lost on city leaders.

“Turnover is a huge issue,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. “I think we need somebody that will stay, somebody who shares the vision on focusing on human health downtown.”

It’s a trend that continues from past mayoral administrations.

Mayor Greg Nickels appointed Alan Painter to lead HSD in 2008. When Mayor Mike McGinn was elected, he replaced Painter with Kip Tokuda, who spent just a few months on the job before McGinn replaced him with Dannette Smith.

Smith resigned in 2013 to take a similar job in Virginia.

Murray said Okamoto’s job is to help end the revolving door, something Okamoto, 60, seems eager to do. Among his goals for the department, he listed finding a “younger, brighter” person to take over.

“What I’m attempting to do is stabilize the office,” Murray said on July 30 to Real Change.

It’s been hard to find the right person for the job.

To help, Murray turned to people with experience in the field. He appointed Plymouth Housing Executive Director Paul Lambros and retired public health expert Dorothy Mann to co-chair a search for a head of the department.

But little came of it. Councilmember Sally Clark, who chairs the Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee, said that of three finalists, none could bring stability to the department.

Lambros said the mayor wanted a dynamic leader and a stellar person.

“We did not find a candidate for him, so he wanted to put a more long-term interim into the position,” Lambros said.

Clark said the search required more time.

“It’s too important a department to settle for your second or third choice,” Clark said.

Human services advocates worry about waiting too long. A number of projects were already in motion under the direction of Catherine Lester, said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute.

“I’m very concerned about continuity,” Lee said, noting that city departments will soon transmit budget proposals to the mayor’s office. Continuous changes in leadership weaken the department’s position in city government, she said.

The move is another sign of Murray’s poor record on human services in his first year of office, said Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness.

“Right now we’re struggling to get the mayor engaged around homelessness,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “This is not going to help that.”

HSD has undergone several changes in the last several years. Former director Dannette Smith saw herself as a change agent, but her reform efforts and restructuring inside and outside HSD rubbed many the wrong way (“This will only hurt for a second,” RC, May 29, 2013).

She faced criticism for eliminating the director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention and consolidating that program into other parts of HSD.

“I still hear people talk about that,” said Councilmember Clark.

Smith was also criticized for cutting funding to nine homeless day centers. She quickly reinstated the funding after the centers’ operators protested.

Okamoto, who took over at the beginning of August, said he’d braced himself for “turmoil.”

“Things are not nearly as bad as I had expected,” Okamoto said. “There’s a foundation of good people and good work.”

Okamoto previously headed the Washington Education Association, the state teacher’s union. Prior to that, he was the chief administrative officer at the Port of Seattle.

He worked for HSD once in his early 20s, as a summer youth counselor in the 1970s. He headed two city departments under Norm Rice’s administration in the 1990s: the Human Resources Department and the Department of Engineering, now known as the Department of Transportation.

Okamoto will earn an annual salary of $151,000. He replaces Interim Director Lester, who agreed to stay on and help with the transition.

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