Council Member Sara Nelson just made the new conservative Seattle City Council even more friendly to her and the Mayor, if you can believe it. 

Nelson, in her new role as council president, fired head of central staff, Esther Handy. Lorena González, the previous progressive council president and enemy of the current administration, hired Handy in 2021. Handy apparently worked for two years without issue under more conservative Council President Debora Juarez, but now, according to KUOW, Nelson will replace her with the City’s Director of the Office of Economic and Revenue Forecasts (OERF), Ben Noble, a proponent of fiscal austerity.

Though axing the head of central staff fits within her purview as president, Nelson’s highly atypical move flies in the face of the new council’s “good governance” messaging. Replacing a perceived progressive with a clear fiscal conservative makes a mockery of the purported objectivity of central staff, and it leaves an opening in the all-important OERF as a revenue crisis looms. 

A City insider called Handy’s firing “ridiculous.” Handy always “served with integrity,” worked well with everyone on council, and respected the nonpartisan nature of the role, the source said. 

But it would seem Handy’s work history may have put a target on her back under the new conservative leadership, even though she went through an extensive interview process to make sure she could handle the City’s standards of objectivity. 

From 2016 to 2020, Handy worked for Progress Alliance, a progressive organization that aims to bolster the political power of communities of color to build a more representative democracy. Then, in 2020 and 2021, Handy worked as the executive director of Puget Sound Sage, a left-leaning nonprofit that lobbies the City and other governments for racial and social equity. 

Current Puget Sound Sage Executive Director Christina Shimizu said the news of Handy’s termination shocked her. 

“Anyone who has worked with Esther knows that she is a highly competent leader and experienced administrator with deep integrity,” Shimizu said in an email. “This is a missed opportunity for council and a loss to our city. I’m curious what the Council President was trying to signal with this decision?”

Great question, Shimizu! Nelson did not respond to my request for comment, but sources speculate that the move must be political. Nelson and some of her council colleagues seem desperate to return to a time before the nominal “progressive sweep” of the 2019 municipal election. Noble fits the bill, having worked as the head of central staff from 2000 through 2013 during Mayor Bruce Harrell’s and Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess’s tenures on council. 

Later, Noble took on the role of director of the Budget Office, where he sent a memo to the council calling for austerity budgeting coming out of the pandemic. The memo earned him some clout with the Washington Retail Association. If they say you’re calling for austerity, then you are calling for aus👏ter👏i👏ty!

He became director of the OERF in 2022. The council established OERF in 2021 to give them better control over the budget while they fought with the former Mayor over appropriate uses of the JumpStart payroll expense tax. It took the City several months to hire Noble to the director position at OERF. While some City insiders worried Nelson would let the department die,  Noble told The Stranger, that "an Interim director will be appointed and the work of the Office, which is set out in the SMC and includes specific due dates for Forecast updates, will continue."

If the City fails to hire an interim director, a dysfunctional OERF would hamper the city council’s access to revenue forecasts to inform their budgetary decisions in the face of a quarter-billion-dollar budget shortfall. Though every new council member and their mother told the public they wanted to really “look at the budget” and crunch the numbers during their campaign, this blow to OERF jeopardizes those campaign promises. And if no one swoops in to immediately find a replacement, it shows that maybe they did not care much about “good governance” and “fiscal responsibility” — just tax breaks for big business.