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News / Northwest

Gov. Inslee fires first director of Washington equity office

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: May 23, 2023, 5:30pm

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has fired the first director of a new state office to promote equity in state government.

Karen A. Johnson’s last day was Wednesday after more than two years at the helm of the Office of Equity.

In a statement, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said Johnson “was provided the opportunity to resign and chose separation instead.”

“She launched this groundbreaking office and contributed greatly to starting this important work,” Faulk said. “However, the office has experienced a lack of stability in agency operations and the work environment, including high vacancy rates, high employee turnover and budgetary concerns.”

Faulk added that “we remain committed to the work and the success of this office moving forward. We determined this will require new leadership.”

In a phone interview with The Seattle Times on Tuesday, Johnson said she was “grateful for the valuable experience I gained during my tenure at the governor’s office and the meaningful contributions that I made to that office.”

But she said she was concerned about the message that her firing was sending to others working in state government.

“We advise state agencies not to engage in this kind of behavior because it leads to wrongful termination which sets up defamation lawsuits,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she did not yet know whether she would pursue a lawsuit against the state or governor.

Johnson’s firing was reported by KING 5 on Monday. She told the TV station she was not aware of the concerns mentioned by Faulk and that her office had announced plans to hold public agencies accountable if they failed to make equity a priority.

Faulk said there was no connection between those plans and Johnson’s departure.

“The governor has been incredibly supportive of the Office of Equity’s work,” Faulk said in an email. “The next director will be expected to provide accountability, implement the governor’s executive orders on equity and help agencies reduce disparities. We want the Office of Equity to be an effective and transformative force in government.”

Inslee signed legislation creating the office in April 2020, and Johnson was named director the following February.

At the time of her appointment, Johnson was the equity and inclusion administrator for the state Department of Corrections.

“Governor Inslee has boldly announced Washington’s historic commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism and I am excited to join his team at this time,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “We will work to develop a new state culture that centers equity in all of its work and provides all Washingtonians with an opportunity to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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