Mayor Ed Murray has promoted Catherine Lester to head the Human Services Department (HSD). Lester has been deputy director since she joined the department under Dannette Smith in 2011, and she served as interim director after Smith left the department.
The department has had a revolving door of directors over the past several years. Since 2008, HSD has had five directors, three of whom, including Lester, were interim or acting directors.
“One of the benefits I have is not as steep of a learning curve,” Lester said in an interview with Real Change.
In announcing Lester’s appointment, Murray said the department is ready to start a new chapter, ending a time of turnover and turmoil.
HSD provides $99 million in funding through more than 500 contracts to nearly 200 agencies. The department has an annual budget of $129 million and 320 full-time employees. Lester’s starting salary will be $151,000.
It took a while to finally appoint Lester. She had headed the department while Murray conducted a search for a new director in 2014. He appointed Plymouth Housing Executive Director Paul Lambros and retired public health expert Dorothy Mann to co-chair a search for the head of the department.
Little came of it. The mayor considered three finalists but did not select from them. Instead, he appointed John Okamoto, a long-time administrator within the city of Seattle, to work on stabilizing the department while another search began (“Seattle’s Human Services Department gets another leader — for the moment,” RC, Aug. 14, 2014).
Lester said she wants to work at reducing racial disparities in the city through HSD’s services, improve the department’s oversight of taxpayer dollars and ensure that HSD employees have a positive work experience.
Lester noted that 54 percent of black children live at or below the poverty level and that the department needs to examine how it is helping to counter those disparities.
She said she hopes to improve the department’s oversight of the tax funding it receives. In September, the Washington State Auditor released a report finding that HSD’s records fell short in documenting and monitoring $662,182 the organization spent in federal funding. Another $2.65 million is likely questionable, according to the report (“State auditor says HSD neglected to track more than $600,000 in federal grants,” RC, Oct. 9, 2014).
Lester said she has had an interest in human services since she was young. At age 13, her sister underwent surgery, and Lester was impressed by the work ethic she observed in the hospital’s candy stripers, or volunteers. Lester later worked as a hospital volunteer outside of Toronto.
“It was my first memory of being in a formal helping role,” she said.