Activists Bristle as City Council Selects John Okamoto as Interim Member

The interim director of the city’s Human Services Department gets the nod despite recent criticism from the left.

After two tense rounds of voting and discussion, the Seattle City Council today voted 5 to 3 to appoint John Okamoto to fill Sally Clark’s seat for the remainder of 2015. The vote was split along familiar lines, with the activist bloc of Licata, Sawant, and O’Brien in the minority and Burgess, Godden, Bagshaw, Rasmussen, and Harrell (who cast the deciding vote) in the majority.

“John Okamoto joins the Council following decades of service to the public,” read a statement released by the council following the decision. “He has run 3 different cabinet departments for the City of Seattle, most recently as Interim Director of the Human Services Department in 2014-2015. From 2008 to 2014, he served as Executive Director of the Washington Education Association, an 82,000 member professional education organization.”

It took two rounds to get to a majority vote for Okamoto. During the first round, councilmember Bruce Harrell voted for attorney and policy analyst Sheley Secrest, upon whom he’d earlier showered praise; in so doing, he effectively blocked Okamoto from winning the first round. In the second round, Harrell switched his vote to Okamoto, giving the former city administrator the five-vote majority he needed to win. (Since Harrell already knew that Okamoto had four solid votes, it’s probable that his vote for the up-and-coming Secrest was more symbolic than strategic.)

But while Okamoto won the five-vote majority needed to put him on the council, he remains unpopular with the city’s populist left. During pre-vote discussion, socialist councilmember Kshama Sawant decried Okamoto as an obedient bureaucrat with a shady past at the Port of Seattle. (More than a few public commenters said the same during the selection process.) Councilmember Tom Rasmussen responded by calling Sawant’s charges “odious” and reading a list of progressive leaders who support Okamoto as evidence of his liberal bona fides.

The lead-up to this appointment has been contentious, not least because of the major decisions facing the council this year. The council is likely to take action on the city’s affordable housing crisis, possibly in the form of a linkage fee (a tax on developers to fund affordable housing) and a request to the legislature for the authority to institute rent control. With an insider like Okamoto on the council, the balance of influence between its activist and conventionalist factions is unlikely to shift.

“Some of the the councilmembers clearly want another fence sitter, and [now] it’s not clear that they’re going to move ahead and address the housing crisis and homelessness crisis,” said finalist Sharon Lee (a left-leaning wonk whom I wrote about last week) after the vote.

“I think John was the insider candidate from the very beginning,” said finalist and former HUD administrator Sharon Maeda, who was also favored by the council’s activist bloc. (She says she also used to be Okamoto’s Sunday school teacher, weirdly enough.) Still, she said, “He clearly knows the city.”

After the vote, Sawant said that her opposition to Okamoto isn’t set in stone. “If John Okamoto wants to use his position and really advocate for affordable housing and address the needs,” she said, “I would be delighted to work with him.”

cjaywork@seattleweekly.com

 
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