Tag: Freedom Project

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”

Durkan Administration Asks State to Expand Scope of Audit Into City Council Contract

By Erica C. Barnett

On Monday, the director of the city’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services, Calvin Goings, and the city’s Finance Director, Glen Lee, signed a letter to the State Auditor’s Office (SAO) asking the auditor to expand the scope of its ongoing audit of the contract between the city’s legislative department and the Freedom Project, which served as the “fiscal agent” for a $3 million project to study participatory budgeting and alternatives to policing.

However, PubliCola’s reporting indicates that the letter was written not by Goings and Lee but by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office—and that Goings and Lee were less than thrilled to sign their names to such a blatantly political series of requests and leading questions.

The letter asks the auditor to look into three new issues: Whether the city auditor should be removed from Seattle’s legislative branch, where (according to the letter) it doesn’t have “adequate independence”; whether it was appropriate for the city council to award a “high-dollar contract … without competition to a non-profit,” the Freedom Project; and whether “laws of the state expressly authorize direct earmarked appropriations for specific entities, and if so, in what circumstances.”

The finance department does not typically get involved in political debates between the legislative and executive branches. In her seven years at the city, council president Lorena González said, “I’ve never seen a letter of this nature to an outside agency.”

In multiple instances, the letter suggests openly that the city council may have broken city and state law by granting the contract in the way it did.

Specifically, the letter suggests that by granting a no-bid contract, the council may have violated the City Charter, and that appropriating funds to a specific entity (in this case, King County Equity Now, via the pass-through contract with the Freedom Project) may have violated prohibitions on earmarks in city law, the charter, and state law.

The first point is a bit ironic, given the mayor’s history of granting noncompetitive contracts, including one to a personal friend who is married to Durkan’s then-deputy mayor.

On the second point, the letter takes a conspiratorial turn, suggesting that the council scrubbed the public record to hide evidence of misdeeds.

“[T]he original legislative documents (since revised and removed from the web), public statements by Councilmember and other records demonstrate that the $3 million dollar appropriation was for the benefit and intended to go to a specific entity,” the letter says.

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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.

“Again, the Executive has not been directly involved in the award of [our] implementation of the contract, as it was wholly in Council’s purview. However, Council has regularly appropriated funding for a specific contractor or provider, and in this case the contract is structured as a pass-through for an entity that was not qualified for the non-profit exemption,” the letter concludes.

“It would be helpful to know whether this type of ‘pass-through’ contracting is a proper use of the non-profit exemption and whether the Executive can award contracts based on ‘earmarks’ by Council or whether doing so would run afoul of the Charter, state law or generally accepted best practices.”

City council president Lorena González told PubliCola that she does not believe the state auditor’s mandate and jurisdiction extends to the city charter or municipal code. “We are certainly aware of several contracts in which the mayor’s office has engaged in no-bid contract practices,” she added, “and it’s interesting to me that FAS didn’t highlight those as additional potential issues.”

A spokeswoman for FAS directed all of PubliCola’s questions to the mayor’s office, which did not respond to several emails seeking responses to questions on Tuesday.

The letter is highly unusual in both its tone and content: The finance department, which oversees many city contracts as well as city facilities, HR, and many other internal aspects of city government, does not typically get involved in political debates between the legislative and executive branches. In her seven years at the city, González said, “I’ve never seen a letter of this nature to an outside agency.”

A spokeswoman for FAS directed all of PubliCola’s questions to the mayor’s office, which did not respond to several emails seeking responses to questions on Tuesday.

González, who is running for mayor (Durkan will not seek reelection), called the letter a “distraction” from the issues Durkan could be addressing in the final months of her term. “I’m just confused about why the Durkan administration is spending time, energy, and resources on this letter… instead of on the real problems facing the city in the remainder of her term,” González said. “This audit was already happening, and it’s going to go through its natural course, and I don’t understand how this letter helps advance our city.”

SAO spokeswoman Kathleen Cooper said the office would treat the letter from the city like any other tip or whistleblower complaint. “We consider everything that comes our way, and if there is an issue of large enough significance … that we think it should be considered in our auditing work, even though we hadn’t included it before now, then we would consider it,” Cooper said.