In City Hall shakeup, department directors come and go

The mayor has named three new directors to her leadership team and lost another. 

File photograph of Seattle City Hall. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a suite of changes to her leadership cabinet Thursday, including the city’s first-ever director of the Office of the Employee Ombud, an entity created last year to provide resources and support to employees who feel they’ve been harassed or subjected to discrimination.

Durkan also announced nominees to lead Parks and Recreation and the Office of Economic Development, two offices that have been led by acting directors for more than a year.

At the same time, longtime director of the Office of Housing, Steve Walker, will be leaving his post soon, Durkan said in a press release. He will remain in his position until July while Durkan’s office seeks a permanent replacement.

“Under his leadership, the Office of Housing has forged strong community partnerships and has worked to build housing in every part of the City,” Durkan said of Walker. “Working with communities and our partners across the region, we will continue to build more affordable housing as quickly as possible.” 

To lead the ombud’s office, Durkan has tapped Dr. Amarah Khan, director of equity and inclusive practices at the Renton School District. Before that she worked with students at Oregon State University, focusing on diversity initiatives. Khan also spent many years facilitating conflict management and cultural intelligence workshops, according to her LinkedIn page.

The office Khan will head is brand new, created last December to act as an avenue for employees to bring complaints of harassment in a setting that's less formal than the city's Department of Human Resources. Employees can approach the office to discuss options for handling workplace issues  — be it mediation between parties or elevating the complaint higher. And unlike Human Resources, the office is explicitly geared toward serving employees, rather than the institution.

Durkan proposed, and the Seattle City Council approved, the office following reports of toxic work environments in various city departments, including City Light, the Department of Transportation and Human Resources.

“This work has become my calling in life, and I am so excited to join hands with City employees who wish to improve the ways we lift each other up,” Dr. Khan said in a statement. “Change won’t happen overnight, but City employees will always have my impartial and honest support.”

Khan will make $155,000 a year and will begin work next month.

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Durkan’s pick for Parks and Recreation director is a familiar name: Jesús Aguirre, who headed the department under Durkan’s predecessor, Ed Murray. Aguirre left in early 2017, shortly after Durkan took office, but has apparently decided to return.

“We are excited to welcome Jesús Aguirre back to the City family and to Seattle Parks & Recreation,” said Durkan. “Jesús has a track record of working collaboratively and with community to help make Seattle a more inclusive, just, and beautiful place.”

Aguirre will make $204,116 and start next week.

To lead the Office of Economic Development, Durkan has nominated Bobby Lee, currently the director of economic development in Portland. Lee also worked on economic development issues under Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, according to the Mayor’s Office.

Lee will make $180,000 and will begin at the end of April. 

The Office of Economic Development works to foster a better climate for businesses, including a $1.3 million grant for neighborhood business districts announced Thursday.

Steve Walker’s departure from the Office of Housing, meanwhile, comes as something of a surprise. Hired by Murray in 2014, Walker was asked to stay on when Durkan took office. He has led the Office of Housing through Seattle’s ongoing housing crisis, working to usher in new recommendations for expanding both market rate and affordable housing and overseeing how the city spends dollars collected through a property tax levy.

His exit comes at a pivotal time, as the Durkan administration settles into its second year and housing prices remain prohibitively expensive for many middle- to low-income people. His successor will be asked to articulate a clear vision for alleviating the housing pressure on Seattle residents. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Office of Housing said, “Under Steve’s leadership, OH has focused efforts on advancing equity by making housing investments across the city in high opportunity neighborhoods, as well as in areas at high risk of displacement.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.