By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
If the Seattle City Council wants to pick a candidate who can hit the ground running, and yet has no political ambition to fill in for councilmember Sally Clark who is resigning, John Okamoto, 61, said he’s the pick.
An interim director of the City’s Human Resources Department, Okamoto said he is interested to be the “caretaker” the job requires. Clark’s last day will be April 12. The University of Washington has appointed her as the director of regional and community relations.
The council states on its web site that it likes to “appoint an experienced ‘caretaker’ who pledges not to seek election to the council this year,” until the term expired by the end of the year.
“I am uniquely qualified,” Okamoto said in his usual cool and no-nonsense manner. He said he is a rare candidate who knows Seattle, and has the experience of working in three different departments of the city, including being director of Human Resources, Human Services, and Engineering with 10 years total working for the city at different stages of his career, serving Mayor Ed Murray and Norm Rice. He understands finance, transportation, energy, growth management, public works, economic development, trade and all the issues the city is dealing with.
“I have been effective in every place I’ve been,” he said. “I have been in management as well as on the labor side.” He cited his leadership as CEO of the Washington Educators Association (WEA) during some turbulent times when WEA was involved in challenging the state in the McCleary case that proponed the state should be responsible to fund education.
“WEA came out stronger after (the challenge). Members accepted the increase and approved the dues increase.
“I have the state, local, and the Port (of Seattle) experience.” Okamoto was the chief administrative officer of the Port and also the Assistant Secretary for the State Department of Transportation.
Okamoto said it would be disruptive if the fill-in person has to campaign and fund-raise for election. He could just focus on the city governance and decisions made for the city’s interests.
Presently, the city is going through challenges, Okamoto said. “I get excited [for the opportunity ] to work on meaty issues by bringing resolutions among council members.” Okamoto said he has turned down opportunities which pay more.
Asked if he considers himself an insider or outsider in city government, he replied, “Neither. I am an independent. I understand the policies and system, but I represent a perspective of the citizens of the city, who don’t have a voice.” This reflects his history, when his family was being discriminated against. His father, a Japanese American, couldn’t get a job after he returned from internment after World War II.
The City’s Fire Department was one of those few places who would hire his father as a mechanic, according to Okamoto. Because of his father’s influence, Okamoto’s mantra is to serve. That means working in the public sector and representing the voiceless such as immigrants, children, and people outside the structure.
Okamoto described his leadership style as “collaborative, strategic, innovative, and inclusive. Listen carefully looking for common interest and see what will inspire the movement of the group for a common vision and find a path forward.”
Okamoto needs five votes from the council to get the job. He said his relationship with the council has always been “cordial…I get along with everyone.”
Okamoto received his bachelor’s of arts and master’s of public administration from the University of Washington, and special program training from the Harvard Business School and Northwestern University.
The application deadline for the interim council member will be April 14. Finalists will be announced on April 20. Finalists’ presentations will be held on April 22 at the City Council Chamber. The council will announce its appointment on April 27. (end)
As of press time, the Northwest Asian Weekly learned that Sharon Maeta will also be running for the same seat. Both candidates are aware they are running for the same position.
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.