Mayor Murray names new acting Human Services Department head

Mayor Murray today announced John Okamoto as the new acting Director for the city’s Human Services Department (HSD). Okamoto will replace current HSD interim Director Catherine Lester, who will remain with HSD and assist Okamoto in his transition.

“I want to extend my gratitude to Catherine Lester for the great work that she has done since 2011, first as deputy director and then interim director,” said Murray. “As the interim director, Catherine successfully led the department through a period of significant change and uncertainty, prospering in many areas. I’m confident John will build upon Catherine’s great work as we continue looking for a permanent director.”

Okamoto served as Executive Director of the Washington Education Association from 2008 – 2012. He has a long track record of successful leadership positions, and is well known by community, public and business leaders. His extensive management experience includes leadership positions with the Port of Seattle, the Washington State Department of Transportation, and as Director of the former Department of Engineering and former Director of Personnel for the City. Read his resume here.

“I started my ‘calling’ in public service in the Human Services Department many decades ago when I was a summer youth worker job developer and counselor. Coming back to HSD is a full circle for me,” said Okamoto.

“My family has deep history in elder care programs with the creation of Keiro nursing home, the Midori senior housing and Nikkei Manor assisted living facility. I volunteer with homeless meal and housing programs at Operation Nightwatch and Lord’s table,” continued Okamoto. “I am deeply passionate about social justice, equity, and inclusion, but I don’t have an extensive background in human services, housing, and homelessness issues. It’s going to be very important for me to reach out to our nonprofit service provider community and to other external stakeholders and make sure my leadership is informed by their insights and perspectives.”

Paul Lambros, Executive Director of Plymouth Housing Group, served as Co-Chair of the HSD Search Committee along with Co-Chair Dorothy Mann, a retired public health expert who was Regional Health Administrator, Region X, U.S. Public Health Service from 1979 – 1993.  Mann also served two years in the office of Mayor Norman B. Rice as Co-Director of the Mayor’s Violence Prevention Project.

“We have tremendous opportunities under Mayor Murray and his administration to have Seattle leading the way across the country in providing innovative social services and in ending homelessness. John will add value by bringing his strategic understanding of systems, diagnosing challenges and new opportunities, and strengthening relationships,” said Lambros.

Estela Ortega, Executive Director of El Centro de la Raza, added, “I’ve known John for many years and know him to be a honest broker who is deeply committed to our immigrant/refugee communities and someone who understands the importance of culturally competent services. I am confident that John’s steady leadership will help the department continue to meet its mission while working collaboratively with our community-based organizations.”

In appointing Okamoto to this interim role, Murray has tasked him to identify where the department can refine its focus, to strengthen partnerships and alignment with other funders, service providers, and stakeholders, and to lay the foundation for transformational change for the next permanent director.

Okamoto’s interim assignment will start on August 1, 2014, with an annualized salary of $151,000. Lester has agreed to stay on and help with the transition. The search process for the permanent HSD Director will be placed on hold until early 2015, with a goal of identifying a new permanent Director by the middle of next year. Similar to the current process, next year’s search process will also include extensive outreach to service providers and community stakeholders for their input and guidance.

The Human Services Department funds and operates programs and services that meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable people in our community — families and individuals with low incomes, children, domestic violence and sexual assault victims, homeless people, seniors, and persons with disabilities.

Murray also announced the reappointment of Fred Podesta as the Director of the Finance and Administrative Services Department and Glen Lee as Finance Director. Podesta’s annual salary will be $157,300 and Lee’s annual salary will be $152,700.