Category: public safety

Participatory Budgeting Plan Is Heavy on Overhead, Seattle Rep. Macri Schools Suburban Cities, and Emails Confirm Durkan Audit Directive

[REDACTED]: Emails confirm Durkan directive.
1. In what may be a final act before the wheels of the citywide participatory budgeting process begin to turn, the Black Brilliance Research Project’s (BBRP) team—specifically, longtime research leads Shaun Glaze and LéTania Severe—are working with the Seattle City Council to develop a spending plan for the participatory budgeting rollout. The city plans to use participatory budgeting to select programs that will replace some functions of the Seattle Police Department.

Any money the city spends on staffing and infrastructure for participatory budgeting will come out of the $30 million set aside in the city’s 2021 budget for PB; that means it will reduce the dollar amount available to finance the projects for which Seattle residents will eventually be able to vote.

A draft spending plan written by the BBRP team outlines $8.3 million in overhead costs—roughly 28 percent of the project’s total budget, and 40 percent more than the entire budget of Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights. The BBRP’s final report to council also suggested setting aside another 20 percent of the budget to cover any unexpected future costs, which would leave just under $16 million to pay for project proposals.

The largest portion of that spending would go to 35 staff members, all identified as “Strategic Advisor 2″-level employees (a city employment tier that comes with a six-figure salary), including a seven-person steering committee to set the rules and procedures for participatory budgeting as well as 25 full-time members of five “work groups” who will provide administrative support to the steering committee.

The draft spending plan also outlines plans to address inequitable access to the internet that might hinder efforts to give BIPOC and low-income residents a voice in the participatory budgeting process. Some digital access-related budget items fit within the current $8.3 million spending plan, but others don’t, including a $2.75 million program called the “Digital Navigator Program” that would involve hiring 50 people to provide one-on-one “assistance in getting to and using online resources, low-income internet [and] device programs, and developing digital skills” to BIPOC residents.

The BBRP and its supporters are still advocating for the city to spend additional dollars to the participatory budgeting process. At the moment, their focus is on a proposal before the council’s Public Safety Committee to cut $5.4 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget to account for an equivalent amount that the department overspent in 2020. In an email sent on Monday, supporters of the participatory budgeting process suggested that the dollars taken from SPD’s budget could enable the city to hire the team of digital navigators, among other expenses. 

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2. Representative Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) is working to pass legislation (HB 1220) that updates the Growth Management Act with rules that would require more affordable housing stock. The bill says Washington cities should plan for upcoming growth by requiring cities to incorporate affordable housing into their comprehensive plans.

However, representatives from several suburban cities, including Renton and Auburn, testified against sections of the bill that would prohibit jurisdictions from banning homeless shelters and transitional housing, as the city of Renton effectively did earlier this year. The bill would prohibit such bans in any area where other types of short-term housing, such as motels, is allowed. Critics argue that the bill is an overreach of state authority, and cities should be able to deal with homelessness as they see fit.

Macri doesn’t buy it. “It seems like local control hasn’t led to inclusive zoning in the last 50 years, so why would I think that it would [now]?” she said, adding that while planning for more housing to accommodate growth is “good policy,” the proposed affordable housing mandates make the policy “real.”

Even though the bill passed the House on March 3 with unanimous Democratic support, Rep. Macri says she’s still worried about how the bill will fare in the Senate. Rep. Macri is currently trying to have conversations with cities, trying to find out what resources they need to “be inclusive to all people in all the zones where [cities] currently allow some people.” She says those conversations are not going great.

On March 11, the Sound Cities Association, which represents suburban cities, sent a letter opposing the bill signed by the mayors of Vancouver, Renton, Sammamish and 21 other mid-sized cities. The Sound Cities Association is a major player in the new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is supposed to devise a region-wide approach to homelessness.

Conversations with the mid-size cities started out fine, Macri said, but as the legislation continued to move, cities kept coming up with new objections to the bill, before finally acknowledging their real beef, which Macri paraphrases as: “We don’t want certain kinds of people in certain kinds of neighborhoods because they can’t meet those people’s needs.”

Seattle’s City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan both sent letters to Seattle’s legislative delegation last week expressing their support for the bill. “All cities play a part in establishing affordable housing and remedying the homelessness crisis that is gripping our county, our region, and our state, and appreciate your support for HB 1220,” the council wrote.

3. Records obtained through a public disclosure request, though heavily redacted, appear to confirm that it was Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, not Department of Finance and Administrative Services director Calvin Goings or finance director Glen Lee, who decided to pressure the state auditor’s office to expand the scope of its performance audit of the city council’s contract with the Freedom Project, which served as the “fiscal agent” for the initial $3 million participatory budgeting research project. Continue reading “Participatory Budgeting Plan Is Heavy on Overhead, Seattle Rep. Macri Schools Suburban Cities, and Emails Confirm Durkan Audit Directive”

SPD Argues Proposed Budget Cut Would Lead to Crisis “Beyond Mitigation”

SPD data shows rising attrition since 2012, when the department fell under federal supervision.

By Paul Kiefer

Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday to present his argument against the $5.4 million cut to the SPD budget proposed by the council in December 2020 in response to overspending by the department. Diaz argued that the additional proposed budget cut could plunge SPD into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation.”

The proposed $5.4 million cut was the council’s response to the revelation in December that SPD had overspent its budget by that amount, requiring the council to make a last-minute addition to the department’s budget. Though SPD staff told council that the department needed that funding to cover separation costs, family leave pay, and COVID testing site-related overtime, the council pointed out that SPD spent past its approved overtime budget during last summer’s protests and left other costs unpaid until the end of the year. The resolution expressing the council’s intent to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s 2021 budget was largely an effort to dissuade SPD from similar overspending in the future.

A month earlier, the council had approved a larger slate of reductions to SPD’s 2021 budget—a $21.5 million cut proposed by the mayor, and a $12.7 million cut added by the council. Most of those cuts reduced SPD’s staffing budget, shifting the salaries reserved for vacant positions and the salaries of officers leaving the department to the city’s general fund.

Diaz argued that while his department can work within a constrained budget, the proposed $5.4 million cut would leave the department unable to adapt to its smaller workforce and could spur more officers to part ways with the department; since the beginning of 2020, SPD has seen more than 200 officers retire or transfer to other agencies—twice as many departures as in 2019. “The continued cuts to the budget, especially those not matched with efforts to reduce the duties of the department, will only drive further staffing losses,” Diaz said. “I can’t plan around a budget that’s constantly changing,” he added.

According to both Diaz and Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, who appeared alongside the interim chief during Tuesday’s presentation, rising attrition—and, Diaz added, a growing number of older officers who are taking medical leave to “burn time” before retirement—have already created serious holes in the department. Continue reading “SPD Argues Proposed Budget Cut Would Lead to Crisis “Beyond Mitigation””

What’s Next for Participatory Budgeting in Seattle

The Priorities for City Investments Identified by the Black Brilliance Research Project

By Paul Kiefer

After six months and a trio of lengthy reports to the Seattle City Council, the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) has come to an end. The two researchers who led the project, Shaun Glaze and LéTania Severe, appeared before the council last Friday for their final presentation, which gave a few glimpses at what lies ahead: An ambitious effort to put a city-wide participatory budgeting process into motion by August.

Participatory budgeting is a form of direct democracy in which residents generate city spending proposals. When the council first embraced the idea last fall, the idea was that it would go hand-in-hand with divestment from policing and reinvestment in community-based public safety. The preliminary research would create a working definition of “community safety” and a blueprint for the participatory budgeting process itself, and Seattle residents would get the opportunity to suggest public safety investments—things like emergency housing for domestic violence victims and youth mentorship programs—for which they could vote later in the budget cycle.

Last fall, the council allocated $30 million to pay for participatory budgeting and the winning project proposals themselves; if successful, it will be among the largest participatory budgeting projects in the United States.

But while the BBRP team has spent the past six months conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups on a set of high-level priorities that will “guide” participatory budgeting, Glaze and Severe told the council that most of the legwork needed to get the program up and running still lies ahead—as do some steps that the researchers initially planned to tackle over the past six months.

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By March 16, council staff and the research leads—with some input from the city budget office and mayoral staff—are supposed to have hammered out the details of a spending plan for the participatory budgeting process. The money for that process will come out of the $30 million, and the final BBRP report also suggested setting aside 20 percent of the available funds to cover unexpected expenses. Whatever remains once the process comes to an end will be available to fund winning project proposals.

The proposed overhead would be significant: In addition to paying for promotional materials, translation, and software development, the researchers’ final report also outlined a plan to pay as many as 37 staffers to collect and review project proposals and encourage residents to participate, among other tasks.

Those new staffers would include the seven members of the “steering committee,” which Glaze and Severe said will create the rules for participatory budgeting, as well as 25 full-time members of five “work groups” and up to five full- or part-time city employees.

According to the BBRP proposal, seats on the steering committee would be year-long, and most members would receive a salary similar to a City of Seattle Strategic Advisor 2, in the range of $100,000 per year, based on a current listing for a strategic advisor position with the Office of Civil Rights, because of their roles as project managers.

But while the BBRP team has spent the past six months conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups on a set of high-level priorities that will “guide” participatory budgeting, Glaze and Severe told the council that most of the legwork needed to get the program up and running still lies ahead—as do some steps that the researchers initially planned to tackle over the past six months.

To choose the members of the steering committee, Glaze and Severe outlined a complex process in which a group of decision-makers will allot points to applicants based on their lived experiences; people with disabilities, Duwamish tribal members, trans or non-binary people, and Black women are among the groups who would receive points because the researchers have determined that their experience is vital to the success of the committee. Who the decision-makers would be, and how they will be chosen, is still unclear. After allocating points to applicants, the group of decision-makers would choose ten applicants from a pool of those who receive high enough scores at random, according to Glaze, to form a “jury” that would then choose the members of the steering committee from the remaining high-scoring applicants.

 

According to the BBRP’s report, applications for the positions will open in March. Excluding the city employees who will provide support for the process, the BBRP’s outline for a participatory budgeting process would require a staff nearly as large as Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights.

Once formed, the steering committee is supposed to create job descriptions for the full-time work group members. Members of the “accountability work group,” for instance, would “monitor and receive feedback” about the decisions made by the steering committee; a second group, called the “lived experience work group,” would “ensure the participatory budgeting process is aligned with the lived experiences of community members.” Continue reading “What’s Next for Participatory Budgeting in Seattle”

Durkan Focuses on Vaccination, “Reopening Downtown” in Brief State of the City Remarks

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s final State of the City speech, delivered from the Filipino Community Center in southeast Seattle, was notable more for its brevity than its content. The speech, which clocked in at just over six minutes (more than 35 minutes less than the shortest of her other three State of the City speeches) included plenty of platitudes about Seattle’s resilience and future recovery (“we have a tough road ahead, but there is hope on the horizon,” she said), but few specifics about what the city has done and will do to ensure that recovery—for small businesses, low-income residents, people experiencing homelessness, or people impacted by systemic racism.

“Never bet against Seattle,” Durkan said. “This year, we will continue to be tested but we will begin to recover and rebuild more equitably.”

Durkan gave few specifics about how she planned to make that happen in her final year, other than widespread vaccination and economic recovery downtown.

In the coming weeks,” Durkan said, “we’ll discuss and implement plans to continue progress on” climate change, public safety, and systemic racial inequity. Including the concrete steps we’ll take together to recover and reopen downtown. Including steps we will take to improve the livability and safety of downtown.”

“We’ll address public safety,” Durkan continued, “expand alternatives to policing, and have other responses.”

Durkan mentioned homelessness just twice, both times in the context of reopening downtown. “We’ll open hundreds of shelter spaces and affordable homes to bring more neighbors inside from our streets and parks so they can get stability and services,” Durkan said. Later, she added, “We will bring more people from our parks and streets into permanent supportive housing and new 24/7 spaces and tiny homes.”

As PubliCola has reported, the city’s plan to open around 300 new hotel-based shelter beds using federal COVID emergency funds has stalled over a dispute between the mayor’s office and providers about how much each bed should cost. Even if all the new shelter beds opened next week, the grants are temporary; once the money runs out, the hotels will have to close unless service providers can come up with new funding for the beds.

No neighborhoods outside downtown Seattle merited a mention in Durkan’s speech, except as future vaccination sites. Even a press release from the mayor’s office said Durkan’s speech laid out “her vision for Seattle to reopen and recover, especially downtown.” There was a time when appearing to kowtow to downtown businesses was seen as a liability, or a sign that a politician was out of touch with people outside the city’s commercial core. In a six-minute speech from a mayor who isn’t seeking reelection, it felt like the only clear sign of where she plans to focus her attention during her last 11 months.

Community Safety Research Effort Splinters, Leaving Future of $3 Million Project Unclear

Black Brilliance Research Project co-lead Shaun Glaze

By Paul Kiefer

Editor’s note: This post has been updated. See below for update.

On Monday afternoon, the Black Brilliance Research Project announced a split with King County Equity Now, the organization that the city selected last year to coordinate research that will lay the groundwork for a public safety-focused participatory budgeting process later this year. The Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) is the name of that research effort.

In a post published on Medium, Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) co-lead Shaun Glaze wrote that Freedom Project Washington, the nonprofit that serves as a “fiscal agent” for the $3 million contract, will now be responsible for coordinating the project, with the BBRP conducting research as a direct contractor to the Freedom Project. At the same time, King County Equity Now (KCEN), the group that’s contractually in charge of the research effort, announced its own new “community research panel” that it says will complete the research.

Under the terms of the Freedom Project’s contract with the city council, KCEN—as the lone sub-contractor to Freedom Project—is responsible for a list of deliverables, including three reports and presentations to the council. KCEN fielded its own team of researchers, including Glaze, but also contracted much of the research out to other nonprofits and community organizations.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your support.

Glaze told PubliCola on Monday night that research teams that previously contracted directly with KCEN will now contract directly with Freedom Project. However, Freedom Project’s role as a fiscal sponsor is strictly constrained by the terms of the contract. For example, the contract does not allow Freedom Project to add or remove subcontractors at will; any substantive changes to the contract must to be approved by the city council, which is likely to have some major questions about the project now that the BBRP and KCEN have said they are going their separate ways.

The BBRP is, in large part, Glaze’s brainchild; Glaze joined KCEN in June 2020 and, alongside co-lead LéTania Severe, assembled KCEN’s research team last fall. Glaze and Severe have also been the primary authors of the work plan and research progress reports submitted to the city council.

In the letter, Glaze wrote that the BBRP’s core staff lost confidence in KCEN’s leadership team after KCEN incorporated as a nonprofit at the end of 2020. “When KCEN represented a collective of Black community organizations, having KCEN facilitate the research made sense,” Glaze wrote. “However, once KCEN chose to incorporate, the community partnership dynamic changed, and this created obstacles and barriers to the research.”

Glaze’s letter claims that KCEN leadership locked researchers out of their email accounts and research databases, “[cut] off communication when requests for transparency and accountability were made,” delayed paying research staff and “dismiss[ed] the lived experiences of some Black community members, including Black people who live in but were not born in Seattle and trans and queer people.”

Of the eight research teams that previously sub-contracted with KCEN, two were notably absent from the signatories of Glaze’s letter: artist collective Wa Na Wari and South Seattle-based nonprofit East African Community Services. PubliCola has contacted East African Community Services and Wa Na Wari about the future of their involvement in the BBRP.

Meanwhile, in a community meeting Monday afternoon, KCEN’s leadership team announced the creation of a new “community research panel” that will “help steward research efforts moving forward,” producing its own report at some point in the coming year.

The council expects a final report on the findings of the BBRP by February 26. According to Glaze, the BBRP team expects to meet that deadline despite the shake-up. It remains unclear what will happen if the council ends up with two separate reports with conflicting recommendations.

Update on 2/11/2021:

The details of the split between KCEN and the core leadership of the BBRP are still difficult to track, but a representative from Freedom Project Washington says that their group will now directly oversee the research teams. (Previously, KCEN was responsible for supervising the work and budgets of the research teams.) In an email to PubliCola on Tuesday, Freedom Project spokeswoman Sauda Abdul-Mumin said the group will also take responsibility for the final research report to the council, which is due on February 26.

The contract for the work, which is held by the Freedom Project, makes King County Equity Now the only subcontractor on the project, and explicitly states that the Freedom Project, as the city contractor, “shall not assign or subcontract its obligations under this Agreement without the City’s written consent, which may be granted or withheld in the City’s sole discretion.” The city attorney’s office is advising the city council (which holds the contract) on what it needs to do to change the contract now, less than two weeks before the final report is due to the city.

Both Glaze, who spoke to PubliCola by text Monday night, and Abdul-Mumin said the re-shuffling of responsibilities won’t hinder the research project. “This change does not impact the contract schedule,” Abdul-Mumin said, “and we are still anticipating a final report and hearing to take place this month. Very little has changed in terms of the research facilitation. This transition occurred to safeguard the stewardship of public funds and remain aligned in our commitment toward making our communities safe for everyone, especially those who have for so long been targeted by systemic racism and oppression.”

Abdul-Mumin didn’t confirm whether KCEN’s own research team on KCEN’s subcontract) will remain involved in the project. However, in an email on Tuesday, KCEN’s press team wrote that the “nearly finalized” research project outlined in the city contract will remain “under KCEN’s Black research umbrella”; they did not clarify whether they intend to submit their own final research report to the council. Instead, the KCEN press team highlighted other advocacy efforts in which their organization is involved; some of those efforts, including calls for the city to set aside $1 billion for an anti-gentrification fund, appeared in past research reports KCEN submitted to the council.

KCEN’s press team also responded to the allegations that their leadership delayed payments to research staff, saying that the city didn’t provide “significant funding” until January. The press team also said that KCEN has paid a total of $1.8 million to the project’s research teams, including more than $1 million that KCEN raised from donors.

The payment schedule included in the city’s contract with Freedom Project Washington specified that the council would release the $3 million allotted to the project in four payments: a $250,000 payment after the council finalized its contract with Freedom Project; a $1 million payment after KCEN submitted a work plan and schedule; a $1.5 million payment after KCEN submitted its preliminary research findings; and a final $250,000 payment after the council received a final research report.

Financial records obtained by PubliCola show that Freedom Project Washington – which, until Monday, was solely responsible for distributing city dollars to its subcontractors and reporting their budgets to the council – show that the nonprofit submitted invoices for the first three payments in November, December and January. PubliCola has reached out to the Seattle City Auditor’s office, which is overseeing the contract’s payment schedule, to determine when Freedom Project received those three payments.

According to their contract with the council, Freedom Project cannot “transfer or reassign” any “essential” research staff without the “express written consent of the city”; Glaze and Severe, the project’s co-leads, qualify as essential staff, so their transfer from KCEN to Freedom Project will likely require city council approval.

Additional reporting by Erica C. Barnett

Five Months In, a Closer Look at Seattle’s $3 Million Community Safety Research Project

By Paul Kiefer

Seattle City Council central staff and representatives from King County Equity Now (KCEN) joined forces during Monday’s council meeting to provide a progress update on the Black Brilliance Research Project, a city-funded effort by nine community organizations to distill the public safety and community development priorities of marginalized communities in Seattle, particularly Black communities. The research is supposed to be the first step toward a citywide participatory budgeting process, which will shape how the city spends nearly $30 million the council set aside for investments in community safety projects in the 2021 city budget.

Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose office oversees the $3 million contract that funds the Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP), prefaced the presentation by drawing a line between the project and the upcoming participatory budgeting process. “This is not a presentation about the participatory budgeting process,” she said, preempting any discussion of the project’s ultimate goal.

After months of preparation, the concrete details of the participatory budgeting process are still hazy; meanwhile, the deadline for transitioning from the Black Brilliance Research Project to the participatory budgeting process is approaching.

KCEN has spent the last five months advertising the BBRP as the vital first step toward “true community safety”: Its product, they maintain, will be a set of problems and priorities that Seattle’s public safety budget should address. To reach that end, KCEN has spearheaded a research process that has involved paying more than 100 community-based researchers to conduct surveys and interviews, produce photography projects, and host podcasts that address themes of public safety and community health. (The organizations that make up the BBRP are subcontractors to the nonprofit Freedom Project Washington, which is serving as the fiscal sponsor for the project.)

But after months of preparation, the concrete details of the participatory budgeting process are still hazy; meanwhile, the deadline for transitioning from the Black Brilliance Research Project to the participatory budgeting process is approaching.

The Black Brilliance Research Project began last September, guided by the Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Reinvestment that KCEN co-produced with the Decriminalize Seattle coalition in the wake of last summer’s protests against police violence and calls to defund the Seattle Police Department. The Blueprint specified that the research would focus on defining “what health and safety actually means, including (but not limited to) alternatives to policing”; it also outlined an ambitious plan to spend roughly $1.2 million to cover the immediate needs of research participants, including transportation and childcare, as well as direct cash assistance. According to the Blueprint, the research project’s final product would be a “road map for how to engage in an accessible and equity-centered” participatory budgeting process by 2021.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The city contract that supports the research, as well as the ordinance appropriating money for the project, set broad deliverables for the BBRP. Aside from a work plan, a community needs assessment, and three data-driven presentations before the council, the contract asks KCEN to produce a “community participatory budget process” focused on public safety and a road map to repeat that process in the future.

Based on Monday’s presentation, as well as the 1,045-page research report that KCEN released last Friday, most of the researchers’ work has gone into interviews, focus groups and surveys—some to assess barriers to civic engagement, some about policing and the criminal justice system, some about mental health, housing and education, and others that posed open-ended questions about public safety.

In a presentation to the city council, KCEN research director Shaun Glaze distilled those suggestions into the same high-level priorities for public safety spending that KCEN has identified in presentations and reports since September

In the work plan they submitted to the council in November, KCEN wrote that all of the research would seek to answer three questions: “What creates true community safety, what creates true community health, [and] what do we need for our communities to thrive?”

While the qualitative data they’ve gathered can be a valuable guide when weighing budget priorities, the data collection itself has some holes: Elderly people, as well as Latinx and Asian American communities, are noticeably underrepresented among the 4,000 people who have participated in the research so far. Additionally, while KCEN has translated its online surveys into more than a dozen languages, the BBRP’s research teams only include one Spanish-speaking member, one Chinese-speaking member, one member who speaks Amharic and Oromo, and no members who speak Vietnamese, Khmer, or Tagalog. (The primary non-English language spoken by researchers, by far, is Somali.)

The researchers’ expanding collection of qualitative data includes hundreds of suggestions for city investments in public safety or community well-being. Some, like investments in arts education for young people, are relatively broad. Others, like the suggestion of a city program to transform vacant buildings into affordable housing, are more specific.

Continue reading “Five Months In, a Closer Look at Seattle’s $3 Million Community Safety Research Project”

Narrow Election for Seat on Little-Known Commission Highlights Politics of Police Discipline

By Paul Kiefer

A day before Christmas, a tight election came to an end. The incumbent was Officer Joel Nark, who has worked for the Seattle Police Department for 34 years. His challenger was Doug Johnson, a 21-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department. Both were after the only elected position on the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC), a three-member body that hears certain appeals from police and firefighters who were fired, demoted or suspended. Nark, who currently chairs the PSCSC, has held the elected position since 2003; he ran unopposed in three of the past six elections.

When the City Clerk’s office counted the votes from public safety employees—the only people who can vote in the election—Nark was ahead by one vote. The small margin triggered a recount.

The campaigns for a little-known position in the city’s police accountability system never spilled into the public eye, but the race was a case study in the intersection of politics and police discipline.

In the candidate statement he published last fall, Johnson took a bland, non-confrontational approach, pointing to his record working on the fire department’s Race and Social Justice Team; his experience presenting before the PSCSC, city council and mayor; and his ability to be a “neutral party when making tough decisions.”

Nark chose a very different tone. “The Commission is under assault from the Mayor, City Council, [and] Civilian Police Commission [sic],” he wrote. “They want to take rights away from the four unions that the PSCSC serves.” Nark was referring to a clause in the 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance that would have prohibited city employees from serving on the commission, as well as recently-retired SPD officers. Though that clause would have eliminated Nark’s position and replaced it with an appointee, the city’s 2018 contract with Nark’s union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), prevented the city from changing the PSCSC’s makeup.

He then turned his attention to his two co-commissioners—a pair of attorneys, one appointed by the city council and the other by Mayor Jenny Durkan. “The other 2 Commissioners now serving are both attorneys who have no police/fire background [a]nd have been on the PSCSC for 1yr & 1mnth respectfully,” he wrote. “As of now, I Chair the PSCSC and am doing everything I can with my 20yrs of institutional knowledge to protect your rights given to you by the State of WA.” In a gesture to the fact that his opponent is a fire fighter, Nark concluded by naming endorsements from two retired fire fighters.

As chair of the PSCSC, Nark has the ability to make decisions about his colleagues’ disciplinary appeals. His role on the PSCSC raised eyebrows when an SPD Officer named Todd Novisedlak appealed his firing to the PSCSC last year. His appeal hearings began on Tuesday morning.

Retired SPD Chief Carmen Best fired Novisedlak after an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation found that he had beaten his ex-girlfriend and repeatedly used racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, including calling his Black sergeant a “monkey,” calling a fellow officer a “lazy Mexican” and referring to a third officer as “that crazy SPD whore.” Nark was close friends with Novisedlak and served as a witness in the OPA’s investigation. In his statements to the OPA, he said his friend didn’t use racist slurs or abuse his female partners; instead, he claimed to have spoken to Novisedlak’s ex-girlfriend, who he alleged had set out to “ruin” his friend’s career.

After Best fired Novisedlak, he sought to appeal his case. His union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, wasn’t willing to support his appeal by providing an attorney, which would have enabled Novisedlak to bring his case to a grievance arbitrator—a route favored by police unions because arbitrators support roughly half the appeals they hear. Instead, Novisedlak had to face the PSCSC, which turns down appeals more frequently.

Shortly before the commission began to hear Novisedlak’s appeal on January 19, Nark recused himself from the proceedings, leaving commission’s two newly appointed members to make a decision in the case. But his decision to recuse himself didn’t eliminate the opportunities for conflicts of interest that the city council sought to address in the police accountability ordinance; Nark also heard the appeals of his co-workers, including fellow SPOG members, for the past two decades.

Nark will also have input into the PSCSC’s potential rulings on out-of-order layoffs of SPD officers: a proposal promoted by several city council members last summer as a means to reduce the size of the police force without laying off the newest, most diverse class of SPD recruits. As Durkan and the council emphasized during last summer’s debates about police department staffing, any attempts to lay off senior officers—chosen either for their lengthy disciplinary records or their specialized training for a unit the council deems non-essential, like the mounted unit—need the PSCSC’s stamp of approval. SPOG strongly opposes out-of-order layoffs, giving Nark an important role as the guild’s voice in that decision.

On Monday, the clerk’s office released the new results. According to Janet Polata, an IT supervisor with the city clerk’s office who oversaw the vote, her office received a “significant number of timely-postmarked ballots” after the election officially ended on December 24; she attributed their late arrival to the mail delivery delays in December. When the clerk’s office tallied the votes, Nark remained the winner: His margin increased by 42 votes.

 

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.

January

Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.

February

Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.

March

Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”

April 

Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.

May

Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

King County Equity Now Presents Preliminary Research Findings to City Council

By Paul Kiefer

Monday morning’s Seattle City Council briefing began with an hour-long presentation by researchers affiliated with King County Equity Now’s Black Brilliance Research Project (BBRP) about the preliminary findings from their research on the public safety and community health priorities of Seattle residents. The presentation was KCEN’s first council appearance since the execution of a $3 million research contract between the council and Freedom Project Washington, the nonprofit serving as the project’s fiscal sponsor, in late November.

The contract itself provides only a broad description of its purpose: to fund “research processes that will promote public safety informed by community needs.” Nevertheless, the research project looms large in the council’s discussions about developing public safety alternatives because it will lay the groundwork for a public safety-focused participatory budgeting process in 2021 that will allocate $30 million to public safety investments chosen by Seattle residents; that process will play a significant role in shaping Seattle’s path away from police-centered public safety.

But the BBRP is largely separate from the project-development element of participatory budgeting. The research itself—which includes online surveys and focus groups—is delegated to “research teams” hired and managed by nonprofits that subcontract with Freedom Project Washington, including a team fielded by Freedom Project Washington itself. Each of these research teams has a distinct focus; PubliCola reviewed one survey, created by East African Community Services, that specifically targeted East African youth between 11-24.

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The core of the BBRP’s preliminary findings are five high-level priorities that KCEN hopes will inform the project proposals put to a vote during the participatory budgeting process: Expanding housing and small-business options (specifically “more Black-led residential and Black-led commercial spaces”); “culturally responsive and caring” mental health services; “childcare and out-of-school time supports… particularly for children facing systemic violence and trauma”; economic relief; and an alternative crisis response system.

These five priorities have remained consistent since KCEN first announced the launch of the BBRP in September. However, according to KCEN, the qualitative data gathered by researchers during this phase of the project will help sharpen more concrete budget and programming proposals at some point in the future.

Research teams have also been conducting “community needs surveys” as part of a parallel effort to address accessibility problems (like language barriers, cost of childcare or lack of internet) that could exclude marginalized residents from taking part in the participatory budgeting process. During Monday’s briefing, Glaze said that KCEN and their partners are distributing the community needs surveys through social media and the social and professional networks of researchers themselves, most of whom are Black and between 20-35 years old.

This could help explain why more than half of the participants in the survey have been Black, and why nearly 55% are younger than 35. KCEN’s efforts to reach older residents through community meetings and in-person interviews have been hindered by COVID-related restrictions on gatherings.

Because the contract between Freedom Project Washington and the council did not outline a budget for the project, the only guide to how contract dollars are spent is the Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-investment released by KCEN and the Decriminalize Seattle Coalition last summer. Though that initial budget is not set in stone, it included nearly $300,000 in spending on “internet connectivity supports” and computers to ensure widespread access to online surveys, focus groups and educational materials. KCEN was not immediately able to say how many internet hotspots and computers it has distributed or how much it has spent on that infrastructure.

Though the work plan KCEN submitted in November included a timeline for the current research project, it’s unclear exactly how this project will lead to a citywide participatory budgeting process in 2021. During Monday’s presentation, Glaze said KCEN doesn’t intend to control the participatory budgeting process. Instead, Glaze spoke about a still-to-be-formed “steering committee” that will work with multiple city departments to set the ground rules for the process, review community-generated proposals and shape them into a list of viable projects. KCEN has not said who will select the committee’s members or when the committee will begin its work.

When asked by Council President Lorena González about city departments that could partner with the steering committee to launch the participatory budgeting process, Glaze pointed to the Equitable Development Initiative, housed in the Office of Planning and Community Development, as a prime candidate, as well as the Office of Civil Rights and the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Glaze said those offices could offer technical support to the process and award grants to the winning projects, though the steering committee would remain responsible for gathering project proposals from community members.

KCEN is scheduled to submit a full report, including preliminary recommendations for the structure of the participatory budgeting process, on December 21.

Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority

1. After listening to public comment from both sides of the debate (one woman, who rattled off the first names of several homeless people she claimed to know, said a guy named “Josh” told her, “The only way you can help me is to arrest me and have me sweat it out”), the council’s public safety committee discussed a proposal from council member Lisa Herbold that would create a new affirmative defense for people who commit crimes of poverty.

The proposal, a version of which Herbold originally proposed as part of the 2021 budget, would enable people who admitted to committing misdemeanor crimes, such as shoplifting or trespassing, to meet a basic human need to use this fact as a defense in court. A judge or jury would then determine whether the defendant actually committed the crime to meet a basic need or not.

The concept has been widely mischaracterized as a plan to “legalize all crime” by conservative interest groups Change Washington and business leaders who claim it would allow people to vandalize small businesses, walk out of stores with armloads of cell phones, and squat on people’s property with impunity. In reality, creating a “basic need” defense would  merely add one more affirmative defense to the list that already exists in city law. Defendants already have the ability to argue, for example, that they committed a crime because they were under duress. Judges and juries then have the ability to agree or disagree with this defense.

These facts didn’t stop public commenters from claiming that creating a new defense would effectively unleash “addicts” and “criminals” on the streets of Seattle. And it didn’t stop council member Alex Pedersen from rattling off a list of extremely implausible scenarios if the bill passed.

The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone made Seattle a “national embarrassment,” he said—and a basic need defense might do the same, impacting everything from the US Senate races in Georgia to the future makeup of the Supreme Court. Renters, he said, might see their renters’ insurance premiums go up as insurance companies decide en masse to “classify all of Seattle as a high-risk zone.” And how, he wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?” (Never mind that the scenario he’s describing would involve going to jail, getting out, getting an attorney, going to court, and convincing a judge or jury that the defense was valid).

And how, city council member Alex Pedersen wondered, would the proposal prevent criminals “from just coming to Seattle to shoplift because they know they can claim poverty as a defense?”

In any case, Pedersen continued, it makes no sense to address the judicial system’s response to crimes of poverty before the city knows the impact of cuts to police, the outcome of the participatory budgeting process that just got underway, and the details of the next Seattle Police Officers Guild contract. “Let’s first see how these other changes work before this council is immersed in a time-consuming and distracting debate over whether we would be the first city in the US to weaken our laws that protect each other,” he said.

Finally, Pedersen argued that City Attorney Pete Holmes has already said that he doesn’t prosecute crimes of poverty, which means that there’s no reason to even discuss the issue for “one to five years,” the length of Holmes’ current and (likely) upcoming terms.

Herbold is still working on draft legislation. Outstanding questions (outlined in this memo) include whether to narrow the defense to a specific list of misdemeanors, whether to put the burden of proof on defendants to show that they had no choice but to commit a crime, and whether people who shoplift merchandise for resale should be allowed to use the defense.

2. Documents just posted on the website of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority indicate that the timeline for hiring a director for the agency has slipped again, from mid-January to mid-February of next year. Originally, the new homelessness agency—which is supposed to come up with a unified, regional approach to homelessness for the entire county, including Seattle and dozens of suburban cities—was supposed to approve the CEO in September. Continue reading “Basic Needs Defense Prompts Wild Claims, Top Staff Blindsided by Durkan Departure, Another Hiring Delay at Homelessness Authority”