Help (reluctantly) wanted
by Knute Berger
Seattle Public Schools superintendent Jose Banda. Credit: Alison Krupnick
Periodically, there's high turnover in top civic positions, and 2014 could be one of those years.
Already we've had the coronation of a new police chief, Kathleen O'Toole. The hiring process and search were extensive. The interim was not exactly trouble-free with controversies related to interim chief Harry Bailey's decisions regarding police discipline, morale problems and a lawsuit from members of the rank and file relating to the federal government's mandate to transform the department. Some have claimed the hiring process, if not the result, were new Mayor Ed Murray’s biggest failure to date.
It's not uncommon for the chief's job to be a hot seat. Since the year 2000, Seattle has had seven chiefs and interim chiefs: Stamper, Johnson, Kerlikowske, Diaz, Pugel, Bailey and O'Toole. Political turmoil goes with the job. In fact, the city website listing all the past Seattle police chiefs is footnoted thusly: "This list [of SPD chiefs] is accurate to the best of our knowledge. Due to the high incidence of firings and resignations, it is possible that some dates are imprecise." Even the city's excellent archives staff has not been able to make sense of it all.
O'Toole will get a honeymoon of sorts, and she's certainly got the support of the mayor and the full city council, sans Kshama Sawant, so she begins with solid political backing. And extensive scrutiny: consultants, the mayor, the council, the feds, the public, the unions, public accountability watchdogs — all are watching every move.
If we can heave a semi-sigh of relief that the chief hiring is over, there are two more potential position openings — jobs that seem to be in play — that could prove challenging to fill.
Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda has made it known that he wants to leave his post for the same job in Sacramento in part because he'd like to go home and partake of a more generous California pension system. Banda, apparently, never really bonded with Seattle.
The schools supe's job has been a revolving door for years — two or so years is a pretty average run in recent history. The job is difficult, the bureaucracy hard to move, there have been big divisions on the school board, among teachers and students over testing, and among various parent factions. Rookie Mayor Mike McGinn once flirted with the idea that the city (and the mayor) should take charge of the district, but he must have realized that was a thankless fool's errand, politically speaking, because we heard nary about it come re-election time.
The superintendent job is hard to fill — the search process has rarely proved satisfying, and departing supes have sometimes left under a cloud due to poor fiscal management (Joseph Olchefske, Maria Goodloe-Johnson). No one looks forward to searching for a new superintendent in part because our "world class city" has a schools system that is anything but, and leadership hasn't consistently been able to bridge the gap between our rhetoric about how "smart" a city we are and our public schools system. Talk to public school parents and you won't hear many glowing reviews about how the system is run.
Another change possibly on the horizon: the superintendent of City Light. Things there have seemed to be a bit more stable the last decade, but Jorge Carrasco seems to be imploding. His misguided attempt to cleanse the web of negative publicity about himself (particularly a pesky Seattle Weekly article that keeps popping up on Google), his push for a ridiculously high raise that he denied, and later admitted, pushing for; his being conned by alleged copper-thieving "gypsies". All call into question his management and, in the mayor's words, his "judgment." His response to the controversies has pecked away at his integrity. His Internet scrubbing, he insisted, was not self-serving, but that does not appear to be the case. And now he's blaming the firm he hired for not boosting his reputation, all the while working overtime to damage his own standing further.
It's not like we weren't warned. In writing about Carrasco's appointment in 2003, Jim Brunner — who has also authored the recent series of Seattle Times stories that have likely darkened the days of the City Light boss — reported that Carrasco had been pushed out of two previous jobs in Austin and Oakland. It's worth remembering that his predecessor, Gary Zarker, was forced out by a vote of the City Council.
City Light is a complicated beast to run and effective managers are few and far between — thus the case for paying them so much and perhaps overlooking other bumps on the résumé road. When he was hired, Carrasco was the highest paid city employee at $210,000. That has risen to $245,000. It looked like Murray was going to give him a raise to $309,000 and Murray has received city council approval to pay a City Light superintedent up to $365,000. Murray has established with his own hiring at City Hall that he believes in well-paid public employees, at least at the management level. The fact that the mayor is now witholding Carrasco's expected $60,000 salary bump suggests a "no confidence" vote, and the council's action increasing the pay range means that if there's an opening, Seattle can pay top dollar to fill the job, if need be. Carrasco says he'd like to stay on, but he also had hinted to the mayor that he'd been approached with another "opportunity," though not a job offer. Perhaps the gypsies beckon?
We’ve had periods of big, uncomfortable turnover before. In 2003, we saw the City Light and Seattle Public Schools superintendents ousted amid angst and controversy. It remains to be seen what happens, but we could witness a continued period of flux in jobs that history shows are hard to fill to everyone's satisfaction.