In 2019, the city of Seattle wanted to know more about who was using new transportation services, things like Uber, car share and bike share.
So it did what it often does: Hired a research firm to design and conduct a survey. The firm had to reach out to potential respondents by mail, by phone, online and through community groups. It had to reach a “diverse pool of respondents reflective of the local communities” based on race, income, language, age, gender and disability status. The requirements were spelled out in the contract.
The firm surveyed 2,854 people and submitted its report four months later.
It was paid $69,000.
Last year, the Seattle City Council wanted to learn more about strategies to cut funding to the Police Department, reinvest in community programs and how to use a participatory budgeting process to do that.
The City Council hired a group to do research and conduct a survey. There were no specifications on how the firm should contact survey respondents and it was not intended to reach a representative sample of the community. Rather, it aimed to reach groups that often can be left out of policy discussions: Black people, gender nonbinary people, immigrants and others. Few requirements were spelled out in the contract.
The group spoke with more than 4,000 people, surveyed 1,463 people and submitted its report three months later.
It was paid $3 million.
That contract, which the City Council signed with Freedom Project and King County Equity Now (KCEN) to conduct the Black Brilliance Research Project, is among the most expensive consultant contracts the city has awarded in recent memory.
It was awarded without being put out for bids, as the Seattle City Council moved quickly last year to cut police funding in the midst of widespread protests of biased policing and systemic racism. It was initially intended to be awarded to KCEN, a coalition of community groups that helped lead the summer’s protests and lobbied hard for the money, but was instead awarded to Freedom Project, a low-profile nonprofit that runs nonviolent communication classes at jails and prisons, because KCEN didn’t meet contracting guidelines. KCEN was then hired as a subcontractor. And Freedom Project was hired as a sub-subcontractor. The partnership ended in an acrimonious breakup in the last several months, with KCEN shut out of the process, Seattle City Council Insight reported.
When the final report was presented last month, the two lead researchers were affiliated with neither organization.
KCEN, in a prepared statement, said the participatory budgeting efforts outlined in the report “have not reflected our initial understanding and have been anti-Black.”
“We advocated for funds vigorously divested from the police budget to go directly to Black communities not watered down and reduced broadly to investment in BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities,” the group said.
Shaun Glaze, one of the two principal authors of the report, disputed the notion that funding wouldn’t be directed toward Black communities.
“I’m surprised to hear anyone say that it is watered down when this is probably the Blackest thing that Seattle has ever funded,” Glaze said. “Over and over again, it says ‘follow Black leadership.'”
Isaac Joy, president and community builder of KCEN, said delayed payments from the city created “tremendous tension” in facilitating the research project.
He said the research project needs to be viewed in the larger context of centuries of anti-Black racism, a staggering wealth gap between Black and white families, a pandemic that disproportionately hit people of color and the largest sustained protests since the civil rights era.
“I count this as COVID relief funding, this is funding that was awarded during the COVID era, specifically to the Black community,” Joy said of the research project.
“In order for the Black community to receive any sort of COVID relief we had to put forth proposals such as this first ever research program to get any type of investment in our community,” Joy said. “We were asking for hundreds of millions to invest in the black community.”
Sauda Abdul-Mumin, a Freedom Project spokesperson said, in an email: “We are committed to being an exemplary steward of public funds and to remaining aligned in our commitment to making our communities safe for everyone, especially those who have for so long been targeted by systemic racism and oppression.”
Payments from the contract went to more than 100 researchers, most of whom got a little over $3,000 every two weeks. Subcontractors were paid hundreds of thousands for producing reports, including videos and podcasts, about the views of the communities they represent: Black trans people, East African immigrants and others.
Seattle has awarded more than 2,500 consultant contracts since the beginning of 2018, according to a Seattle Times review of city clerk records. The contract awarded to Freedom Project and King County Equity Now is the 36th most expensive during that time. All of the contracts that cost more were for technical work — design, IT work, engineering or construction management for public utilities or transportation projects — or were for programs in Seattle Public Schools.
The contract with Freedom Project and KCEN was awarded last fall by the Seattle City Council, over the veto of Mayor Jenny Durkan. Durkan said she was supportive of seeking community input as the city moves to rethink policing and public safety, but that it should be put out for bids. Also, she wrote, some of the work the City Council was outsourcing could be done by city agencies “for much less money.”
The City Council voted unanimously to override Durkan’s veto.
“Historically, proposals for city spending or research projects are completed at a fraction of the cost,” Kamaria Hightower a Durkan spokesperson wrote, last week. Hightower, in an emailed statement, criticized the City Council for cutting city departments out of the contracting process.
The contract is now under examination by the state auditor and a report is expected in early summer, a spokesperson said.
In response to a request from Durkan’s administration, the auditor’s office said it was considering whether it was appropriate for the City Council to award the contract to Freedom Project without putting it out for bids. The auditor’s office also said it was considering whether it was appropriate for the funds to be essentially earmarked to KCEN.
Durkan, in an emailed statement, said “there have been some missteps and conflict in the City Council-led process” but she has confidence the auditor will “ensure full accounting of the funds.”
What is the Black Brilliance Project?
The end product, the Black Brilliance Research Project Report, runs nearly 1,300 pages long, although the vast majority of the report, more than 1,100 pages, consists of other publications or subcontractors’ reports, reprinted as appendices.
It intends to answer two fundamental questions: How should Seattle redirect funding to create “true community safety” and how should the city set up a “participatory budgeting” process, to let people propose and vote on spending priorities.
On the first question, the answers were not surprising.
The report recommends five areas for investment: Housing, mental health care, children’s programs, economic development and an alternative to the current 911 system, focused on wellness.
All five focus areas are already the subject of either significant investment, significant debate, or both.
“It’s a fair point, why are we doing studies over and over again and not acting on them,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose Community Economic Development Committee is overseeing the work. “What was unique for me was hearing from those who are most often left out in the research and in the survey talking about what specifically do you mean by community safety.”
That means, Morales said, things like affordable housing, health care, food security and livable wage jobs, not “911 response times.”
Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed to several items in the report that wouldn’t have been identified otherwise: A survey from East African Community Services found 39 to 50% of youth are experiencing mental health challenges, she noted, and the city needs to fund culturally appropriate mental health services.
“Residents need access to therapists and other healers who understand that Seattle is a predominately white city and that BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] residents constantly experience micro- and macro-level aggressions, overt systemic racism, and covert daily discrimination,” Herbold wrote in an email, quoting the report.
Council President M. Lorena González, who signed the contract with Freedom Project on behalf of the council, declined an interview request and asked for questions to be submitted in writing. She also declined to respond to a list of written questions.
Morales, Herbold, González and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda chose, in November, to award the contract to Freedom Project, without putting it out for bids.
The report also lays out a proposed process for participatory budgeting, in which community members decide and vote on how to spend $28 million that the City Council budgeted for community-led projects.
The report envisions a steering committee to design and guide the process, work groups to provide outreach and oversight and budget delegates to develop ideas into projects. All would be paid, at rates around $100,000 a year.
The seven people on the steering committee would have to, among them, meet nearly a dozen different criteria: At least one member must have been incarcerated, one must have been homeless, have disabilities, be trans, nonbinary or gender nonconforming, be a Black woman, be an older adult, be from the African diaspora. At least two of seven members must be youth and at least one must be appointed by the Duwamish Tribe.
Those criteria, Glaze said, came from talking to people and asking them “who hasn’t been represented in decision-making spaces.”
Once project ideas are developed, the community would vote on which ones to fund.
Eligible voters, the report says, should include not just Seattle residents, but anyone who “lives, works, worships, studies, accesses services, or plays in Seattle.” Voting would be available in person, by mail, online, through thumb drives and by other avenues.
The criteria for voters, Glaze said, is the same the city has used for the last few years in a much smaller version of participatory budgeting, to allocate funds to small streets and parks projects.
Costs to administer the selection process could be significant. It generally costs between $700,000 and $870,000 to administer an election in Seattle in odd- numbered years, and between $1.4 million and $1.55 million in even years, according to King County Elections.
The steering committee, perhaps in consultation with King County Elections or other government agencies, would determine details and feasibility, Glaze said.
Several city departments are currently working to come up with a proposed spending plan for participatory budgeting, which will then be presented to the City Council, for its approval.
At the same time, work is quietly progressing on Durkan’s Equitable Communities Initiative Task Force, a 25-person group intended to guide a proposed $100 million in new investments in communities of color, that Durkan pledged last year. The full task force has met, privately, 15 times since October, the mayor’s office said, with final recommendations potentially coming next month. An outside facilitator is being paid up to $200,000 to guide the task force.
“The national civil rights reckoning showed we needed to do more, to dismantle systemic racism and invest in BIPOC communities,” Durkan said. “My administration’s sole focus will be on getting these investments into the community as quickly as possible so they can start making a difference.”