By Paul Kiefer
When Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her decision to veto the City Council’s midyear budget rebalancing package on Friday, she specifically called out an ordinance appropriating $3 million for the council to contract with community-based groups to create a “roadmap for future equitable participatory budget processes related to public safety” by gathering public input to shape the city’s public safety budget priorities.
Council member Tammy Morales, the sponsor of that ordinance, has said that the research would be the first step toward “participatory budgeting,” a process some cities use to guide public spending, often by allowing residents to vote on how to spend a designated pot of money (a federal grant, for instance).
The mayor’s office, the council, and the most prominent police abolitionist groups have all expressed various levels of support for participatory budgeting. If the city ends up using participatory budgeting to guide a significant portion of next year’s public safety budget next year, then Seattle will become the testing ground for participatory budgeting on an unprecedented scale. But whether those three parties see eye to eye about what participatory budgeting would entail—and how much weight public input would carry—remain open questions.
King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle
King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, two of the most prominent voices in the push to cut the Seattle Police Department budget and invest in alternative public safety programs, were the first to call for the city to launch a participatory budgeting process to redirect the city’s public safety budget toward alternatives to policing and investment in BIPOC communities. The bill Durkan vetoed emerged out of those two groups’ demands.
In partnership with a nonprofit called The Participatory Budgeting Project, the two groups developed a detailed outline for how the city could lay the groundwork for a participatory budgeting process, called the’ “Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-Investment.” That blueprint describes a $3 million “community-led research process to generate true public safety informed by community needs” which is the model for the research described in the vetoed bill.
The council would direct the money to a nonprofit, which would subcontract the work out to other groups—presumably, though not necessarily, KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle. The two groups estimate that roughly $1 million of the $3 million would go toward hiring staffers, including researchers, many of whom they hope will be young people from BIPOC communities. The rest would go to recruit and compensate people in BIPOC communities to participate in the survey and for data collection and reporting, plus $500,000 for unspecified “cash assistance and direct support for community members” to “address economic and other urgent needs.”
In essence, those expenses would serve two purposes. The first would be to provide jobs—in the form of researcher positions—and financial support to community members who participate in the research process. In their blueprint, KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle write that “community members should not be expected to come up with solutions on a volunteer basis.”
“In part because of the City’s long track record of supporting harmful policies and procedures, many community members do not trust the City to lead an effective research process. The pattern of collecting data and recommendations and then doing little to nothing with the results must end.” —King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-Investment
The second would be to prepare for a large-scale, accessible participatory budgeting process that would influence the 2021 city budget, starting with surveys and interviews of city residents (with a focus on BIPOC communities) about their public safety concerns and thoughts on how the process should be run: for instance, whether a steering committee should develop community proposals, and if so, who should be on that steering committee. Based on the findings of those surveys and interviews, the nonprofit contractor would then sort out the details of the participatory budgeting process: how the public could give input (in the form of budget proposals, for instance), how that input would be turned into budget items, and who would be responsible for reviewing and developing citizens’ proposals.
Technically, none of the $3 million would fund a full-scale participatory budgeting process; the closest the city would see before next year would be a small test run. However, according to King County Equity Now Research Director Shaun Glaze, the two organizations want to see a full participatory budget process come to fruition before budget discussions next year. More specifically, Glaze says her organization hopes that the participatory budgeting process will help determine how the city spends half of SPD’s 2021 budget— a figure in the range of $200 million, which would be an unprecedented use of the process both in Seattle and nationwide.
The City Council
The legislation the council passed says the contractor should produce a “community participatory budgeting process,” but it is silent on exactly what that process should look like.
When I asked Morales to clarify how the council planned to spend the $3 million, she pointed to the King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle blueprint as the model; the council also adopted $3 million figure itself from that blueprint. However, that blueprint doesn’t provide any details about how the participatory budgeting process would function, nor does either organization intend to have full control over the process themselves.
Participatory budgeting is nothing new in Seattle. After a push by former council member Nick Licata, the city’s first experiment with participatory budgeting began in 2015 with the Youth Voice, Youth Choice program. In 2017, the council renamed the program Your Voice, Your Choice, and opened it to input from all city residents. Like most participatory budgeting programs, Your Voice, Your Choice allows city residents to submit ideas for neighborhood-level capital projects.
The Your Voice, Your Choice program differs substantially from the research process proposed in the ordinance, not least because Your Voice, Your Choice is run by the city. Although KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle have said explicitly that they are not interested in controlling how the entire process plays out, they argue that the research portion of the participatory budgeting process for public safety should not be under direct city control.
The two groups explain why in their blueprint, writing, “in part because of the City’s long track record of supporting harmful policies and procedures, many community members do not trust the City to lead an effective research process. The pattern of collecting data and recommendations and then doing little to nothing with the results must end.”
The startup costs for the community-safety research process mark a significant shift in how Seattle uses participatory budgeting. The city spends roughly $2.2 million on the entire Your Voice, Your Choice program, of which $2 million funds the actual projects. In contrast, the council’s ordinance would spend $3 million on preliminary research alone.
Near the end of Friday’s press conference, Durkan responded directly to a recent demand from King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle that the city use participatory budgeting to allocate $100 million that she has pledged to invest in BIPOC communities next year. In short, she said she wouldn’t be doing that, but that she supports the idea of participatory budgeting in theory.
“I’ve been very clear from the beginning that the community—and I mean community being larger than just one organization—will be at the table helping us decide what they need and how we get there,” Durkan said. “King County Equity Now wants to be the deciders in that.” (KCEN has denied this.) “We want those voices at the table, but we will have a broader process.”
“We need to have trusted community partners going into communities to bring information and proposals back,” Durkan continued, “whether it’s a task force or a joint group [created by the council and the mayor].” Continue reading “What is Participatory Budgeting, and How Could It Shape the City’s Approach to Public Safety?”