When you’re the director of Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD), you serve the city’s most vulnerable people, but you answer to the mayor.
That’s not always good for job security.
In 2008, Alan Painter was appointed to HSD director by then-Mayor Greg Nickels. 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 to oversee a staff of 330 people and a budget of $120 million.
Smith resigned earlier this month to take a similar job in Virginia. Now the mayor’s office is searching for a replacement, which brings up another point: McGinn is running for re-election. He, too, could be replaced.
Call it the HSD hot seat. Over the past five years, the person overseeing the city’s senior, youth, homeless and family services has changed with the shifting political winds.
It wasn’t always this way.
Patricia McInturff held the position for five years, from 2003 to 2008. Prior to that, Ven Knox headed the department for nine years.
Smith resigned earlier this month, after three years on the job. She will leave in June, and the mayor’s office has begun to search for her replacement.
Whoever becomes Seattle’s new HSD director has a steep learning curve. Smith was leading a group to reorganize how the city and nonprofits provide free meals outdoors, which includes creating a centralized kitchen with indoor and outdoor seating for multiple agencies to use. She sits on the interagency council for the King County Committee to End Homelessness, which is now putting more emphasis on emergency housing solutions.
Then there’s the political uncertainty. McGinn is running for re-election against eight other candidates. If McGinn selects a replacement for Smith before November and doesn’t win, the incoming mayor could decide to select someone else entirely. That’s what happened in 2008 when then Mayor Greg Nickels appointed Alan Painter to the post a year before McGinn was first elected mayor.
The frequent leadership changes have caused headaches for social service providers, who’ve had to readjust to a new director, with a new personality and agenda, every couple of years.
“The lack of consistency is difficult,” said Beverly Graham, executive director of Operation Sack Lunch who also sits on the city task force working on outdoor meals. “You get used to working within the parameters of a certain director’s personality, you get to know their strengths, you get to know what their passions are, and then all of a sudden, bam, they’re gone.”
Deputy Director Catherine Lester will take the helm at HSD until the city finds a new director.
Spokesperson Robert Cruickshank could not say if the new hire would happen before or after the election, and the mayor’s staff seemed unprepared for Smith’s departure.
“Dannette Smith’s departure was unplanned,” he said. “We didn’t, obviously, have time to put together a detailed plan about how we’re going to move forward.”
Smith declined to comment for this story.
The city is collecting information from social workers to find out what they’re looking for in a director, but it’s not a public process. The mayor’s office will have one-on-one conversations with people in the community.
Many social service providers say they want someone who takes a different approach than Smith did when she first came to Seattle. Smith saw herself as a change agent, and her aggressive reform and restructuring inside and outside of the HSD rubbed many the wrong way.
She faced criticism for eliminating the director of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention and consolidating that program into other departments. Most recently, she cut funding for homeless day centers at nine organizations, but quickly reinstated the funding after the organizations protested.
While she often relented after making an unpopular decision, Smith was seen as having a heavy hand in decision-making.
Graham wants someone who will approach Seattle’s network of social services with “a velvet glove and not Thor’s hammer.”
The next HSD director should make it clear they don’t have all the answers, she added.
Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute, hopes the mayor hires someone who does not try again to reform the department in the name of doing more with less, which she said can take time and resources away from other projects.
“We need someone who can be an advocate internally with the mayor and council to make sure essential housing and human services get funded,” Lee said. “We don’t want someone to be a gatekeeper to say no to everything.”