Help Wanted at City Hall: “Discretion” and “A High Level of Tact” Essential

 

OLS director Martin Garfinkel is sworn in on April 12, 2018; image via city of Seattle.

1. Less than two years after he was sworn in, Office of Labor Standards director Martin Garfinkel is leaving. His position was just posted on a government jobs listing site. According to the listing, leading applicants will “have a reputation for exercising a high level of tact, good judgment, discretion, and diplomacy and have cooperative working relationships with diverse groups of people.”

OLS, which investigates businesses accused of violating the city’s labor laws, was in the news most recently when city council president Bruce Harrell called the entire office “extremely unprofessional” in the way it handled allegations of wage theft by businesses. Suggesting that small, minority-owned businesses accused of wage theft were guilty of nothing more than “good-faith disputes” with their employees, Harrell proposed spending $50,000 for the Office of Economic Development, which promotes businesses, to survey businesses investigated by OLS for violations to see what they thought of the agency. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, a labor attorney who has frequently clashed with both Harrell and Mayor Jenny Durkan over labor and other issues, pointed out that labor laws are about results, not intent, and noted that any survey of businesses targeted for enforcement will yield predictably negative results.

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, Kamaria Hightower, said Garfinkel was leaving “early next year following his two year commitment to the City. … While Marty will certainly be missed, in his absence OLS will continue to chart a path forward of strong and proactive outreach and engagement with workers and businesses, to develop laws and rules for the more than 54,000 employers and 580,000 employees throughout Seattle.”

In the last year and a half, a number of department leaders and high-level staffers have left their positions, including the heads of the city’s homelessness office, the Finance and Administrative Services Department, the Office of Housing, the Parks Department, the Office of Economic Development, the Seattle Department of Human Resources, and Seattle City Light.  Deputy Mayor David Moseley will leave at the end of the year.

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2. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s policy shop—the in-house staffers the mayor’s office relies on to do policy and planning work on big issues such as transportation, labor, and housing—is losing two more staffers. Technology advisor Kate Garman (Durkan’s tech policy advisor) and Julia Reed (a policy advisor with a broad portfolio) gave their notice earlier this month.

The departures come just three months after policy director Edie Gillis and advisor Kiersten Grove left in August. Gillis was replaced by Adrienne Thompson, who had been the mayor’s labor advisor.

Policy advisors aren’t mere seat warmers—they craft legislation, draft (and sometimes steer) executive policy, and impart their own expertise and institutional knowledge to the executive branch. Inadequate or understaffed policy offices can lead to half-baked proposals that don’t hold water politically or legally, so having a fully staffed policy shop is critical to a mayor’s success at converting ideas into law that will stand up to legal challenges.

Mark Prentice, the mayor’s communications director, provided a list of staffers in the policy shop that includes two listed as “position TBH.” Besides Thompson and Helmbrecht, they include a housing advisor, a staffer on loan from the city’s early learning department, a new hire from Washington, D.C., and an executive assistant. In contrast, previous mayoral policy shops have had between 10 and a dozen staffers, according to current city staff.

“All these people play important roles in the policy development process,” says Prentice. His last day is later this year.

3. The city’s Human Services Department is under a spending moratorium for the rest of the year after discovering a financial “shortfall of over $1 million for the department,” according to a memo sent to all HSD staff by deputy director Audrey Buehring last week. The shortfall, Buehring’s memo says, impacts new programs that were not yet implemented as of November 20 (when the moratorium went into effect), changes to contracts that use money from the city’s general fund, and “travel, training, equipment, and supply requests that require General Funds.” 

HSD took on a number of employee coaching contracts in mid-2019 or later. Several involve what the mayor’s office calls “culture work,” such as a peacekeeping circle training and Undoing Institutional Racism seminars; others involved “results-based accountability” and “coaching for results.”

HSD spokesman Will Lemke told me, “It is not uncommon for HSD to ask divisions to monitor resources as the end of year approaches, and pointed to a list of items that he said “contributed to the shortfall,” and which adds up to just over $1 million, including $250,000 for a midyear expansion of the Navigation Team; $145,000 to respond to the February snowstorm; and $193,000 to plan for the proposed new regional homelessness authority.

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