City Lets Seattle Decide How to Spend $2 Million, But Not Everyone’s Happy

This story originally ran at Seattle Magazine.

Ever noticed a new curb cut on your corner and wonder how it got there, or stopped at a brightly painted new crosswalk and wished an intersection in your neighborhood had gotten one, too?

Until recently, the process for choosing which of these small projects got funded could be a mystery to anyone who didn’t belong to their neighborhood district council—the groups which submit projects for possible funding under Seattle’s Neighborhood Park and Street Fund. In previous years, each of the 13 districts received an annual lump sum to pay for small (up to $90,000) improvements—everything from new sidewalks to lighting upgrades. The district councils, whose members had to represent established community organizations, would brainstorm a list of projects to submit to the city, which approve or reject them.

“There was very little outreach done around when the projects were being built, what the projects were, and how they got funded, and they would just kind of show up in the neighborhood,” says Jenny Frankl, a strategic advisor at the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON). “It was a mysterious process.”

That changed last year, when Mayor Ed Murray cut ties with the district councils—which, according to a 2009 audit, had long been unrepresentative of an increasingly diverse city made up largely of young renters. Instead, the city opted to expand an existing “participatory budgeting” project called “Youth Vote, Youth Voice,” in which 3,000 Seattle youth decided how to spend $700,000 in neighborhood funds. The new “Your Voice, Your Choice” invited neighborhood residents, including those unaffiliated with any formal group, to nominate projects online. After it was determined which projects were doable, residents would vote on how to spend a total of $2 million in city funding—$285,000 per city council district.

More than 900 suggestions poured in across the city, compared to 150 or so in a typical year under the old system. They ranged from benches and tables at Wallingford’s Meridian Park to a “duck crossing” sign at Denny Blaine Park in Madrona.

Although many were deemed “not feasible”—DON rejected the duck crossing “due to unpredictable nature of [duck] habitat locations”—volunteer “project development teams” considered around two thirds of them before choosing a final list of 10 projects per district that will go to a citywide vote June 3.

DON spokeswoman Lois Maag adds that Your Voice, Your Choice is “much more transparent” than the old district council-led process. “Not only are people able to provide their idea, but then they get to vote for that idea,” she says. “Before, it was a much smaller group of people making the decisions.”

But the process has its discontents, such as Dan Sanchez, chair of the Central Area District Council. An outspoken opponent of the new Murray-backed process, Sanchez says the city failed to achieve its goal of increasing diversity and inclusion, making “participatory budgeting” anything but. By Sanchez’s count, gleaned from sign-in sheets at the Your Voice, Your Choice development team meetings, it was mostly white homeowners (many 55 and over) who attended. Only two African-Americans came out, he says. “Our last district council meeting had seven African-Americans at it, for crying out loud, and citywide they got two?” Sanchez says. “Something’s wrong with that picture.”

Maag points out that during the 2009 district council meetings used to gauge diversity, staff encouraged attendees to fill out sign-in sheets, which asked for race and age. “Most of the [project development team] meetings did not have” those, she says. However, Maag concedes that the city “didn’t meet our diversity goals in this project development phase.”

For Sanchez, the groups’ lack of diversity is proof of “what we had been saying along—you can’t force people to participate.” DON had a similar experience when it organized focus groups to provide feedback on the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda—although turnout was high in the early days, many people dropped out over time, especially those who did shift work or had childcare issues.

Frankl acknowledges that participation was sometimes low—one meeting drew just four participants to review dozens of potential projects—and says the city plans to do more to increase participation next time. She admits “it was not a perfect process” and pledges to improve outreach next time.

“I would not characterize all of the meetings as a homogenous group of participants,” Frankl says. “However, there’s a lot of room to do a better job of pulling in different voices and different people.”

That could mean staggering meeting times (5:30 p.m. starts were a barrier for some) or allowing people to comment online.

Seattle residents can vote online for their preferred projects until June 30, and the city hopes to make paper ballots available at libraries or community centers. The city will fund the top vote-getters after polls close at the end of the month.

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