On Monday King County Equity Now research director Shaun Glaze presented to the Seattle City Council a preliminary report on the look, function, and priorities of the Black Brilliance Research Project, one of two proposed budgeting processes the city is considering as part of an effort to invest tens of millions of dollars into marginalized communities.
The conversations going on in Mayor Jenny Durkan's Equitable Communities Task Force have been pretty opaque, and the contours of KCEN's process have been vague and amorphous in the months since the council contracted with the group for $3 million to work on the issue. After Glaze's presentation, those details remain pretty amorphous, but less so now!
While this isn't the first time Seattle has tried participatory budgeting, the 2021 undertaking will be the city's largest attempt. And of course, the process of awarding KCEN such a hefty contract has drawn controversy and intense scrutiny.
In his analysis of the contract between KCEN and the council, Seattle City Council Insight's Kevin Schofield raised concerns about the project's research process and the council's use of a loophole to contract with the group in the first place.
As Schofield pointed out, contracts over $54,000 must be open to competing bids unless the council is contracting with a nonprofit. KCEN wasn't a nonprofit at contract time (though it is now), so the council "officially" awarded the contract to the Freedom Project, a nonprofit who would run the money through to KCEN. One issue there was that KCEN listed the Freedom Project as a subcontractor for its own project. Now the Washington State Auditor is examining the contract, according to Crosscut.
In the meantime, the Black Brilliance Research Project has carried on its work, which "has everything to do with challenging past budgeting practices that allowed the police department and pensions to absorb nearly a quarter of the City’s general fund," according to the preliminary report.
The priorities identified by the research project haven't changed much since the December report—they still include broad areas of focus such as "housing and physical spaces, mental health, youth and children, crisis and wellness, and economic development." However, those priorities do inform what is new in the report, which is the actual participatory budgeting process.
According to the Black Brilliance Research project, participatory budgeting will function through various workgroups with people of color and formerly incarcerated people at the helm to make sure "those who are most likely to be harmed or killed by systemic racism and violence are represented," the preliminary report reads.
Get a load of all the workgroups it's gonna take to get this thing off the ground:
To drum up policy ideas, steering committees will orchestrate brainstorming meetings with community groups "likely" on a district-by-district basis, and then another workgroup (so-called "budget delegates") will turn those ideas into actual policy. The community will vote on the policies they want to see survive, and then the council will choose to enact those policies and fund them with the $30 million they set aside in the budget.
Many other teams—a "lived experience workgroup," an "accountability workgroup," an "outreach workgroup," a "restorative and proactive safety workgroup," and "process facilitators"—will supplement this work.
Some things still need to be cleared up. For instance, it's unclear how much city staff will need to help out with meetings, which could "require significant time and resources" according to a central staff memo. Also, most of the people involved in participatory budgeting will need to be compensated, and compensation amounts haven't been determined yet.
The Black Brilliance Research project's report states that community members will "need to be paid a living wage to do this work," which means "making no less than $30/hour." For the most part, the funding around the process is just generally unclear. Maybe that'll be in the final report?
On top of that, the city has "several concurrent and interrelated" equity initiatives and task forces in the works, including Mayor Durkan's Equitable Communities Task Force, a team of community leaders that is choosing how to allocate an additional $30 million to marginalized communities.
In the council briefing on Monday, KCEN's Glaze told Councilmember Lisa Herbold to "expect to see a considerable amount of overlap and thoughtfulness on how to line those [concurrent and interrelated equity] pieces up," and even hypothesized that Durkan's task force might just decide to give "part or all" of their $30 million toward KCEN's project.
"No one wants to see committees pitted against themselves," Glaze said, "especially when it’s not the communities themselves doing the pitting."
The Black Brilliance Research Project's final report will be presented in Councilmember Tammy Morales's Community Economic Development committee on Feb. 26. The council will then deliberate further on the participatory budget in March. The funds allocated to Durkan's task force and the participatory budget are under a proviso until Durkan submits a spending plan to the council.
"This is a real opportunity for us to shift how we use public resources and our taxpayer dollars so we are investing in a real way to make differences for our neighbors," Morales said.