Meet John Okamoto, your newest Seattle City Council member.
If you don’t remember voting for him…well, you didn’t. But five sitting council members did, and so on April 27, he was selected to replace the outgoing Sally Clark. And even before being sworn in, Okamoto had already become the latest example of how, on city council and in Seattle’s city government, the important decisions are made behind closed doors by The People Who Matter. The hearings, the public process, the much-maligned “Seattle Way” – often as not it’s kabuki, a slow, elaborate dance meaning nothing. Whether it’s the “Downtown Tunnel Waltz,” the “Tear Down Yesler Terrace Rumba,” or any of countless other numbers, it’s still all the same dance. And we’re not invited.
In the case of Okamoto, the fix seemed in even before Clark resigned. Clark’s decision last winter to run for re-election in as at-large council member helped persuade council veteran Nick Licata – who didn’t want to run against a colleague this year, and lives in the same district as Mike O’Brien – to retire. Then, afew weeks later, Clark abruptly announced she wouldn’t seek re-election after all. M. Lorena Gonzalez, mayor Ed Murray’s attorney, announced for the seat two hours later, leading to speculation that the Gonzalez-for-Clark swap was a package deal, orchestrated in a way that would force Licata off the council in favor of the insider Gonzalez. Certainly, there appears to be a back story to Clark’s maneuverings that the general public has yer to hear.
But Gonzalez can’t be elected until November – and has to defeat two credible challengers first. And so, when Clark abruptly resigned in early April to take an $150,000/year position with the University of Washington – the sort of job one doesn’t land overnight – the fix appeared to be in once again. The last two times that council appointed replacements for mid-term resignations, it was due to scandal: John Manning’s led to the appointment of the late Richard McIver, and Jim Compton’s resulted in the selection of Clark herself. In the case of both McIver and Clark, the council chose safe, unthreatening appointees with no real public constituency, memers who wouldn’t rock boats. Sure enough, both McIver and Clark went on to decade-long council careers as anonymous council members with no discernable accomplishments.
With Clark’s resignation, however, council president Tim Burgess took this tradition a bit further. The council’s call for applications to replace Clark emphasized a strong preference for a person of color who had a background in social services (Clark chaired the council’s housing committee) and city government. The description was basically written for Okamoto – whose most recent job was as interim director of the city’s Human Services Department, and who’s held a number of other jobs with the city, state, and Port of Seattle. As a consummate insider, by all appearances he’ll be a reliable ally for the council’s developer-friendly agenda even as Seattle’s lack of affordable housing shapes up as the biggest issue in this year’s elections.
(About those elections: the council also specified that it wanted someone who, unlike McIver and Clark, wouldn’t run for the permanent seat. But due to Clark’s timing, the May 17 filing deadline falls after the council was required to name her replacement – and there’s no legal way the council can prevent Okamoto from now filing if he chooses.)
The unpleasant smell behind Okamoto’s appointment intensified with reports that Burgess was rounding up colleague’s votes for Okamoto as a finalist, in apparent violation of the city’s Open Meetings Act. Sure enough, Okamoto led the eight finalists selected, and with Burgess’s support won the actual appointment – but not before withering criticism from non-insider councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who had the temerity to bring up Okamoto’s record while working at the Port of Seattle during the Mac Dinsmore scandal a decade ago, a time when then-U.S. Attorney Mike McKay described the Port as a “cesspool of corruption.” Sawant’s use of that quote gave the council’s insider majority a case of the vapors, notwithstaning the far more personal attacks they’ve leveled at Sawant herself over the past year, and even led to a hilariously hand-wringing editorial in the Seattle Times urging Sawant to apologize for telling embarrassing truthes, or something.
More importantly, Okamoto actually has very little understanding of the housing crisis that’s presumably his biggest concern as a new councilman – professing, at one point in his audition before council, to have no idea what linkage fees are even though they’ve been the council’s hottest housing issue for the last year.
But having a councilman who might acknowledge problems with the current practice of giving away the store to well-connected developers – let alone consider innovative ways to address those non-problem – simply wouldn’t do. Caring about affordable housing isn’t why John Okamoto is now on Seattle’s city council. As always, the public is the last to get the memo.