Morning Fizz: Participatory Budgeting Project Moves Forward, Deputy Mayor Moves Out

1. On Tuesday morning, the Seattle City Council’s legislative department provided a copy of their newly finalized $3 million contract with Freedom Project Washington to PubliCola. The Freedom Project will oversee King County Equity Now’s Black Brilliance research project, which is working on a plan to allocate about $30 million in city funding through a participatory budgeting process next year. Freedom Project Washington is expected to subcontract with other nonprofits to run parallel research projects, but the city has yet to publish the names of the other subcontractors.

The contract has been months in the making. KCEN began laying the groundwork for a Black-led research project to determine the city’s public safety priorities before the council funded the work through its midyear 2020 budget balancing package passed in August. The group launched the Black Brilliance Research Project in September, spending their own reserves while waiting for the arrival of city dollars; since then, KCEN has fielded nine research teams to conduct interviews, surveys, and community meetings. KCEN has not responded to questions for more details about the community meetings and interviews.

Freedom Project Washington has close ties to KCEN—its executive director, David Heppard, has been a regular speaker at the group’s online press conferences—but it was not the city’s first choice of contractor. The council and KCEN originally planned to contract with the Marguerite Casey Foundation but decided to go with the Freedom Project because the Freedom Project, which has been a fiscal sponsor of other nonprofits in the past and has previously received city contracts, could get up and running more quickly. Freedom Project Washington will process payments and expenses on KCEN’s behalf; in return, KCEN will manage the “day-to-day operations” of the Black Brilliance Research Project.

The budget also designated roughly $300,000 to “COVID-related support,” including face masks and “internet connectivity support” for research participants, as well as nearly $400,000 for accessibility resources (childcare at community meetings, transportation, translation) and $500,000 for “cash assistance and direct support for community members.”

The only window into how KCEN plans to spend $3 million on community research is their “Blueprint for Divestment/Community Reinvestment,” a document released last summer that includes KCEN’s own recommendations for city policy and budget priorities and a tentative budget for the Black Brilliance Research Project. As PubliCola reported in August, that budget allocated only around $1 million to pay research staff, though senior KCEN researcher LéTania Severe later said that the group intends to hire as many as 133 staffers over the coming year.

The budget also designated roughly $300,000 to “COVID-related support,” including face masks and “internet connectivity support” for research participants, as well as nearly $400,000 for accessibility resources (childcare at community meetings, transportation, translation) and $500,000 for “cash assistance and direct support for community members.”

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KCEN has not clarified how those resources would be allocated, nor whether and how their budget has changed to reflect tightening restrictions on in-person gatherings like community meetings. The contract with Freedom Project Washington does not include any directives about how to spend the contract dollars, so the project’s budget items will be decided by Freedom Project Washington and KCEN.

According to the contract, KCEN is expected to present their work plan and a preliminary report on their community research projects, including digital documentation of “community research that was presented as visual/performing arts, spoken word, etc.,” to the council in November, though the group’s opportunities to present at a council briefing before the end of the month are dwindling.

A final report on their “findings and recommendations for [a] participatory budgeting framework and mechanisms” informed by “community dialogues” is due in the first quarter of next year.

2. Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan will leave the city at the end of the year, to be replaced by former deputy Human Services Department director for homelessness Tiffany Washington. PubliCola broke the story on Twitter Monday morning.

Ranganathan, the former director of Transportation Choices Coalition, led major initiatives at the mayor’s office and was in charge of external relations. During her three years, she oversaw the closure (or opening, depending on your perspective) of 23 miles of “Stay Healthy Streets” during the pandemic as well as the West Seattle Bridge closure, the creation of a small business assistance fund, and the creation of a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers.

In her job as head of of external relations, Ranganathan often had to represent the mayor’s office in front of a sometimes angry public. Recently, for example, she was dispatched to urge several volunteer city commissions not to make official statements calling for Durkan’s resignation—an effort that was unsuccessful, as PubliCola has reported.

Ranganathan also found herself, inadvertently, at the center of a Twitter-based kerfuffle that led to the firing of a city council aide in 2018, when Michael Maddux, a legislative assistant to council member Teresa Mosqueda, directed a profane and inappropriate tweet at the deputy mayor.  Amid some heated back and forth between the second (city council) and seventh (mayoral) floors of City Hall, Maddux resigned.

Ranganathan will be replaced by Tiffany Washington, who headed up the Homelessness Strategy and Investment division of HSD and was later deputy HSD director on homelessness. Washington was a sometimes controversial figure among HSI staff, who reported feeling demoralized and left out of decisions by HSI management. She resigned the position in 2019, after it became clear that HSD interim director Jason Johnson was not going to be confirmed by the city council.

Washington also had a sometimes contentious relationship with the city council, who grilled her repeatedly on HSI’s work when she was in charge of the division. When asked about the city’s decision to increase the number of encampment removals it was doing without providing notice or offers of shelter, Washington initially questioned whether an increase in removals without notice was even happening, then gave conflicting explanations for why it was happening. When a city audit criticized HSI for failing to address health and safety issues at encampments and then using those issues as a justification for removing them, Washington retorted that the audit was simply “not factual.”

And when PubliCola revealed that the city did not know how many people it had moved from homelessness into housing, Washington said that providing more accurate information would require “a 700-page PowerPoint” and that because the imprecise numbers were calculated using a consistent method, “No matter how you look at it, it’s getting better.”

Washington will oversee HSD in her new position, but deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller will continue to oversee homelessness.

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