Any good intentions behind the Seattle City Council’s hasty 2020 spending of $3 million to research racial equity in city dealings were undermined by shaky management. Now a contract that should have laid the foundation for re-imagining public safety is being rightly scrutinized by the Washington State Auditor’s Office as potentially poor stewardship.
The auditor’s investigative report, expected this month, should be read closely. Seattle is in a momentous election year for city leadership. City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda and Council President M. Lorena González are on the citywide ballot, González as a mayoral candidate. The City Council’s ability to govern responsibly while responding to public demands for action is a strong indicator of members’ fitness for office.
Mosqueda and González, along with fellow members Lisa Herbold and Tammy Morales, sponsored spending $3 million on the “Black Brilliance Research Project,” a novel undertaking to lay the groundwork for changing how the city spends money. Seven of nine council members wanted to cut the police budget drastically and spend the money on participatory budgeting, under which public vote would award contracts to community agencies for some services police now handle.
The research would reach out to historically underserved communities to learn which priorities would help most — a noble response to the demand for racial reckoning after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd. But the wisdom of “participatory budgeting” — burdening voters with decisions it elected their representatives to make — is debatable. And the council’s inept haste to defund police and embrace it make the proposal appear dubious.
Within a few months last year, the project advanced from policy proposal to spent money. A council committee met that July 15, 2020, to hear a presentation from King County Equity Now on moving money and public duties from Seattle police to civilian agencies. Two months later, the council put $3 million toward the Black Brilliance Project as a council-overseen endeavor with a unanimous Sept. 22 vote to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of the proposal.
Two red flags were raised by this rapid-fire spending, pointing to shoddy governance.
The award went out without a bidding process. King County Equity Now’s blueprint proposed “citywide dialogues about expanded notions of community safety … to move forward with further cuts to SPD’s budget.” The $3 million contract for that research included scant requirements about the final product.
Imagine buying a car or a home under such sketchy promises. Now imagine entrusting your city’s future leadership to people who did just that with your tax money.
To make matters worse, that contract required tightrope accounting to avoid being blatantly illegal. Under city law, contracts over $54,000 must go out to bid — unless they’re inked with a nonprofit, which King County Equity Now was not. So the corporation found a small nonprofit, Freedom Project, to sign the deal as a pass-through entity.
For all this quasi-legal chicanery, Seattle’s $3 million got a report of what only 1,463 people thought should be priorities for participatory budgeting. The meat of that final report is 108 pages of findings and 402 pages of complementary research. The city’s knee-jerk contract also purchased drama when a dispute among researchers, King County Equity Now leaders and the Freedom Project boiled over into public turmoil and a messy reworking of contracting arrangements, midproject.
More adept administrative oversight might have kept such a project on the rails, even despite the questionable insistence on handing out the no-bid deal. But this council was performing a hurried gesture toward equity, not thoughtfully governing. The pricey research came back advising that a $30 million participatory budgeting process shell out $8 million for overhead costs and hire dozens of new bureaucrats.
After all that, the city punted participatory budgeting from 2021 into 2022. Morales said the project’s research had delivered an “aspirational,” not workable, solution. That’s quite a self-made mess at a cost of $3 million of public money. The auditor’s report should lend clarity to whether the council performed its public responsibility to manage this project as well as it should have.
Voters should hold Mosqueda and González accountable in the November election if the auditor finds evidence the poor public stewardship in this troubling narrative constitutes a full-fledged debacle.