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Black researchers say Seattle Mayor's Office has undermined their work to help reimagine public safety

At the height of the protests against police violence last summer, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan made a promise: $100 million for Seattle's Black residents — later committed to communities impacted by systemic racism, broadly.

That money, in part, has funded Black-led research into how the city can adopt public safety programs with significant input from the community.

But that effort has since been hedged, caught in a tangle of red tape and tension between the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and stakeholders.

Last year, the City of Seattle hired Black researchers to identify ways to implement a holistic model of community safety and health, amid activists’ calls for the city to divest from conventional policing.

But several researchers with the Black Brilliance Project and city employees say the Mayor’s Office has misrepresented to City Council recommendations the group put forward, in turn undermining the will of the community.

“So much of what we're combating right now is just people being afraid of the future,” said Nadia Miller, one of the researchers. “And like, if the mayor's team is continuing to hold things up, it's because they're afraid of what might go wrong.”

The research led by the Black Brilliance Project was published in February, and pointed to five key areas of investment for community health and safety: mental health, economic development, crisis and wellness, youth and children, and housing and physical spaces.

“As the research we have carried out shows, when imagining safety for those most impacted by policing, a wide swath of solutions is put forward, with many focused on meeting people’s basic needs,” the roughly 1,300-page report states.

Those recommendations were intended to shape a civic process in which community members help decide how to spend public dollars, known as participatory budgeting, which Seattle has had in place since 2015.

In a letter sent in late March, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington to the Seattle City Council outlined two potential paths forward for implementing a new participatory budgeting process, which the council will vote on.

One of the plans, Washington wrote, would put the Department of Neighborhoods in charge of the operation, costing a cited $2.6 million to administer with $25.1 million left over for projects. The other would place a third-party administrator in charge of the initiative, costing the city a purported $7.5 million in administrative expenses, leaving $20.8 million for projects.

Neither of those options, Black Brilliance Project researchers say, would put the community at the helm of participatory budgeting. They say they have been adamant that the city’s Department of Neighborhoods should not lead participatory budgeting, and that a third-party administrator should facilitate, rather than manage, a community-led process.

“It’s important that we take time to do this the right way,” said Miller. “It would be best for all institutions to get on board with the rest of the community and just believe in what we're doing here in Seattle.

“We're leading the way in the country, and looking at what actually helping our community looks like in a real way,” she said. “We are one of the wealthiest places in this country so we have the means to do it.”

City employees on an interdepartmental team have also voiced concerns about the participatory budgeting proposals put forward by the Mayor’s Office. In a letter sent to the council on April 12, city employees who reviewed the Black Brilliance project’s participatory budgeting report wrote that “the contents of [Washington’s] letter do not represent or reflect the work of the staff.”

“The conversation has continually devalued the capability, competency, and resilience of the Black community and the researchers,” the letter reads further down.

One city employee told KUOW it’s not clear to staff how the Mayor’s Office arrived at the participatory budgeting recommendations outlined in Washington’s letter to the council.

“It sets up a false dichotomy where counsel is put in the position of making a decision about what to do, without actually receiving good information from the executive branch about the best way to proceed to actually achieve the goals that community has set out,” he said.

The employee, who requested not to be named by KUOW, citing concerns about retaliation, said the participatory budgeting process was at risk of falling back into old, exclusionary patterns.

“People voted on some stuff — some people flagged some ideas and that's it,” he said of previous versions of the program. “And it's a pretty low-touch engagement with the community. And you’d have to be already pretty engaged to participate in that process.”

The city employee said the issues currently surrounding participatory budgeting implementation aren’t unique.

“This is fundamentally a sort of a pattern that the city has engaged in when it comes to communities of color: not having viable conversations and putting the community in the space of being stuck between the mayor's office and the council whenever there's a conflict. And holding up resources that ought to be moving forward.”

Since city employees spoke out in their letter to council, he added, the workplace has felt hostile. City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who chairs the council’s Community Economic Development Committee, said she wanted to hear from the employees in question directly, but that it’s been difficult to communicate across the departments involved.

“Knowing that some of these folks fear they will be retaliated against for expressing their frustration with this process, I also planned to ask if the Mayor can assure me that they will not be retaliated against,” she said in an email.

For it’s part, the Mayor’s Office maintains that the participatory budgeting recommendations presented to city council reflect what was communicated to executives during multiple conversations with the Black Brilliance Project.

Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said in an email that the city’s recommendation that would keep the Department of Neighborhoods in charge of the participatory budgeting process is aimed at “getting the resources out as quickly as possible to the community.”

“The Department of Neighborhoods is the only department with experience and resources (staff) to support [participatory budgeting] without the need to hire and invest additional resources that would further reduce the $30 million to [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] communities,” she said.

Hightower also suggested that semantics and legal stipulations could be to blame for the discord over how the Mayor's Office has presented participatory budgeting recommendations to the council.

Additionally, Hightower said, the council doesn’t have to accept either of the implementation recommendations — councilmembers could create and choose their own participatory budgeting plan.

Councilmember Morales said on Monday that she would be introducing legislation to allow the Seattle Office for Civil Rights to launch a request for proposal, and search for a third party organization that could manage the participatory budgeting process.

"I'm hopeful that this organization, whether it's a local group or a national group, will bring to the table the experience and the skill set to manage the process, particularly when of this size and magnitude," Morales said.

"It's important that we get this right, because this project is complex, and because there's a lot at stake — especially for our Black and brown neighbors who fought really hard to make sure that this funding was included in last year's budget."

The next Community Economic Development Committee meeting will take place on May 18 at 2 p.m.

In the meantime, Miller with Black Brilliance Project said the complications with moving the participatory budgeting process forward mean missed opportunities for the very residents the city says it wants to help.

“We could be creating jobs or an income for small businesses — people who are just getting their consulting business off the ground, it's a shame,” Miller said. “I know that participatory budgeting is a little bit different as far as the way that the hiring process is going to be, but it's creating several short term positions to do really, really important work for our community.”