By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Last Friday, Mayor Mike McGinn released a statement saying he and Stella Chao, director of the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, agreed that her name would not be put forward for reconfirmation by the city council. Chao’s last day will be on Jan. 31.
“The situation is that several director positions at the City are four-year appointments, and my four-year is up,” said Chao. “Instead of going for reappointment, the mayor and I had a conversation about what we wanted to do, and we decided not to go forward.”
McGinn confirmed this in KUOW’s Jan. 10 edition of Ask the Mayor. “You know, we had a conversation, and I’ve known Stella for a number of years. … She’s been working hard for four years. It’s a hard job. We sat down and had a discussion, and it seems like it was a good time for [a] change of direction in the department, for her and for us,” said McGinn.
Chao moved to Seattle from Queens, N.Y., in 1980. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work at the University of Washington (UW).
She was the executive director of the International District Housing Alliance (IDHA) for eight years.
IDHA is a nonprofit organization that provides multilingual and multicultural services for low-income households. Before working for the IDHA, Chao was a medical researcher at the UW. She also has worked in community development in Nairobi, Kenya.
Chao was nominated for director of the Department of Neighborhoods four years ago by former Mayor Greg Nickels after a nationwide search. At the time, McGinn, then a Sierra Club activist, chaired the search committee that recommended Chao’s appointment to Nickels.
Many have speculated that Chao was not reappointed due to friction between her and McGinn.
However, she says that is not true. “I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment. It’s just time to have different leadership, and it’s the mayor’s prerogative to choose his directors. … It’s a new mayor and a new administration, so of course it’s going to be different. That’s what the voters wanted — someone different. It’s expected.”
The Department of Neighborhoods
The Seattle Department of Neighborhoods was created to act as a link between residents and the government. It is known particularly for its Neighborhood Matching Fund, a program created in 1988 to provide city resources to community-driven projects, and its Neighborhood Service Centers, which provide information about Seattle services and programs, as well as payment services (for bills, traffic tickets, passports, etc.).
In Ask the Mayor, McGinn responded to a question about the direction he wants the department to take. He emphasized the value of efficiency due to budget constraints.
In the past year, the department faced an overall 18 percent budget cut. Twenty-two percent of the Neighborhood Matching Fund was cut, and six of its 13 service centers (ones that didn’t offer payment services) were permanently closed.
When asked if she thought the cuts to her department were disproportionate, Chao said, “If you look at the percentages, yes, the cuts were disproportionate. My department is almost entirely supported by general funds. … Because of this, my department tends to be one of the first on the chopping block.”
The city deposits basic taxes and fees it collects into the general fund. These funds are the city’s most flexible revenues and can be spent in support of any general government purpose. However, revenues earned by Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light from utility rates do not contribute to the general fund.
When asked if the closure of the service centers was due to the lack of funds or a difference in philosophy, McGinn responded, “Budget makes you look at philosophy. [We ask ourselves,] what are our priorities? What can we afford?”
McGinn was asked if he saw the department as another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy. McGinn said no, but added, “I think there’s a core role for the Department of Neighborhoods in modeling and working within government on improving and enhancing that connection with residents. But it’s not their job alone. It’s not like if you’re in another department and you get to go, ‘Oh, that’s Neighborhoods’ job, I don’t have to work with the community.’ ”
Chao, in an e-mail to her staff, wrote, “Until the mayor’s office makes an announcement of their long-term plans, Kimberlee Archie, deputy director, will step up as the acting director, as she has always backed me up during my absences.”
“I think it’s important to have diversity in leadership,” said Chao, speaking broadly about leadership.
“It’s important that leadership understands and advocates for the community. It isn’t because I’m Asian [that I should be put in a leadership position], but because I’m Asian and have been very committed in stewarding and advocating for the community.”
McGinn has not commented publicly on who Chao’s replacement will be. However, a source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that McGinn’s people have approached Asian American leaders, telling them that Chao’s replacement will likely be another Asian American (whose name is withheld). The source’s account was corroborated by Mark Okazaki, who said he received a call from Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith.
According to Okasaki, he expressed concern that Asian Americans at the top were being let go or overlooked. Smith said he understands Okazaki’s concern and told him that the mayor is considering a certain Asian American to serve as interim director for Chao’s department. Okazaki told Smith it is troublesome that all of the decisions are made behind-the-scenes without Asian Americans in the room.
Currently, there is one other director who is of Asian descent, Diane Sugimura, director of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development.
Many have expressed sadness over Chao’s departure from the department. “I am personally saddened to learn of Stella’s departure,” said Jean Godden, Seattle City Coun-cil member. “Throughout her tenure, she has been a strong and consistent advocate for the Department of Neighborhoods and its mission. She will be much missed. But with her background and experience, I know she will continue to work for [the] community and social justice.”
“With Stella’s departure, we lose a great departmental leader with an understanding of our neighborhoods and how they interact with city government,” said Bruce Harrell, Seattle City Council member. “I wish Stella all the best as she moves on to new opportunities and challenges.”
Kip Tokuda, a former state representative for the 37th District, echoed Harrell’s sentiments. “I think, certainly, from the community standpoint, it was good to have Stella at the Department of Neighborhoods. But my feeling is that life’s short, and if she feels it’s not a good fit, I’d support her in wanting to do something else.”
“I love the department, and I love the people in the department,” said Chao. “They have community in their hearts and do good work — this strong value for community building and civic empowerment is rare in a bureaucracy. I will very much miss working among them.”
“I’m taking a break,” said Chao. “There are a lot of things that interest me, and a lot of work to be done. My next step will be finding what aligns with my values.”
As for whether she will go back to nonprofit work or stay in government, Chao said, “Anything is possible.”
“My hope [for the future of the department] is that people will continue to realize the value of community building and the value of the personal relationships in making sure that the community stays strong. … In tough times, it’s the personal relationships that get us through the difficulties. There are all sorts of ways we can continue to work to make sure the community has a voice in government. I want people to remember this, and that there are a lot of good staff that are here [in the department].”
“Maybe it is my personal experience with hardship and understanding the barriers that some people have to work though,” said Chao, explaining what drives her in her work. “I believe in striving for a just society in all its aspects, so that everyone has the same chance to [realize] their potential, and not just the few. Can you imagine what an incredible place we would be if everyone’s gifts were valued and everyone could reach their potential? It’s seeing people’s gifts and what they can achieve for the good of the larger community that inspires me.” ♦
Assunta Ng contributed to this report.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.