John Okamoto is (temporarily) replacing outgoing Seattle City Council member Sally Clark. But the decision to pick him exposed a deep council rift. City of Seattle

Is John Okamoto—picked on April 27 to serve out the remainder of departing Seattle City Council member Sally Clark's term, through the end of November—a corporate stooge who was hand-selected by the mayor as "yet another representative of the establishment"? Or is he a perfect temporary council member, a longtime government employee who's well-prepared and "governed by logic and facts, not emotions"?

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Those two competing narratives battled it out as Okamoto was voted into office by sitting council members, and while the differing visions were never fully resolved before the 5-3 vote in favor of Okamoto, their existence exposed a deepening division on the council.

Council Members Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, Jean Godden, and Tom Rasmussen supported Okamoto. The more activist wing—Kshama Sawant, Nick Licata, and Mike O'Brien—opposed him, voting instead for Sharon Maeda, a former union activist and former employee at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In an earlier round of voting, Licata and Sawant had supported Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee, and Harrell had voted for NAACP economic development chair Sheley Secrest. When that vote produced no clear majority for anyone, Harrell switched his vote to Okamoto (after a whispered conversation with Council President Tim Burgess). Harrell, whose switch basically decided the whole thing, offered no explanation for his support of Okamoto.

Sawant, though, was unrelenting in her criticisms of Okamoto from the dais, saying it would be "scandalous" for the council to support him. That pissed off the other council members, who then took aim at Sawant.

"It is unfortunate she has to stoop so low," said Tom Rasmussen, accusing Sawant of "smearing" Okamoto's reputation.

Okamoto is a seasoned bureaucrat, who showed during his interview how careful and well-versed he is in avoiding many actual policy decisions. (In other words, just like Sally Clark.) Along with stints at the Port of Seattle and the Washington Education Association, he's held multiple posts in city government—human resources director and engineering director in the 1990s, interim director of the Human Services Department until just a few weeks ago—which is what made him such a popular pick for the conflict-averse council majority. He's also close with Ed Murray, and sought his advice on whether he should enter the race (the mayor said yes).

The section of his résumé that sparked Sawant's criticism was his time as chief administrative officer at the Port of Seattle during a multiyear, multi-scandal period that lasted from 2003 to 2008.

Okamoto wasn't implicated in a controversy about then-CEO Mic Dinsmore's port retirement package, or in state and federal investigations in 2008 that found a culture of widespread fraud at the port, especially in its process of overseeing contracts. But Okamoto was named—or, at least, his position was—in a 2007 report that criticized port administrators for failing to provide sufficient oversight in an investigation of officers who sent racist and sexually explicit e-mails. (Port police were basically allowed to investigate themselves.)

"Basic questions that should have been asked... were not asked," the report said.

Okamoto told The Stranger that he "had reported to the CEO wrongdoings in the police department," but that, "when it came down to it in the investigation, [the CEO] denied that he had knowledge of those incidences."

Now that Okamoto is on the council, he'll face a slate of issues far more complicated than just getting along with Sawant. He's expected to take over the council's housing affordability committee and possibly replace Clark as a member of the steering committee overseeing the mayor's Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee, which is expected to deliver recommendations to the council in May about what sorts of housing policies the city should pursue in order to tackle affordability challenges.

On the issue of rent control—which Sawant and Licata want the council to support in a new resolution—Okamoto said he doesn't yet have a position. He gave the same answer on linkage fees, would be charged to developers to help pay for affordable housing. The council has passed a resolution supporting the idea, but will have to decide in coming months just how much those fees will be. Licata's office has also been pushing for changes to the city's tenant relocation program to try to help renters who get "economically evicted" when their rent goes up dramatically. Okamoto said he wasn't familiar with that effort.

The council will also soon review a $900 million transportation levy proposed by Mayor Ed Murray before it goes to the ballot this fall, and is overseeing the rollout of the city's new preschool program this fall.

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After the vote to give him the temporary position, Okamoto said he thinks the city is in a "time of possibilities where, if we as a city council work together, this can be a place of possibility even for those that on a daily basis live with realities that are challenging and unpleasant."

Part of Okamoto's statement hit on a central question: Can this new combination of council members actually "work together"? But it also brings up another question: With Okamoto presumably joining the council's centrist majority and solidifying its power over the more activist members, will the centrist majority feel the need to "work together" at all? recommended