Seattle exercised “only the bare minimum of accountability and transparency” last year when the City Council awarded a $3 million no-bid contract to conduct the Black Brilliance Project, a research effort meant to identify public safety spending priorities as the city looked at defunding the police, the Washington state auditor reported Monday.
State Auditor Pat McCarthy, as part of the city’s annual accountability audit, examined the contract, which the City Council awarded last year in response to widespread protests of systemic racism and biased policing.
McCarthy, in a statement accompanying the audit, faulted the city, while noting that the contract “did not technically violate the relevant rules.”
“The audit determined the process the city used to award the contract was concerning,” McCarthy’s office wrote.
“In order to create trust in government, it is incumbent on public servants to establish clear, fair and open processes for the actions we take, especially when they use public dollars,” McCarthy said. “Taking a few more steps to define the terms of the contract and justify the process used to award it could have addressed public concerns.”
The contract, awarded by the City Council over the veto of Mayor Jenny Durkan, was among the most expensive consultant contracts the city has given out in recent memory. Durkan, in her veto message last fall, wrote that much of the work in the contract could be done for “much less money.”
The contract 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 protests. It was initially intended to be awarded to King County Equity Now, a coalition of community groups that helped lead the summer’s protests and lobbied hard for the money. But because it was a new organization and not yet technically a nonprofit, King County Equity Now did not meet contracting guidelines.
Instead, the contract was awarded to Freedom Project, a low-profile nonprofit that runs nonviolent communication classes at jails and prisons. King County Equity Now was then hired as a subcontractor, and Freedom Project was hired as a sub-subcontractor. The partnership ended in an acrimonious breakup earlier this year, with KCEN shut out of the process.
McCarthy’s office faulted the City Council for not specifying, in detail, what the contract should deliver. Instead, the City Council asked for four broad “deliverables” which were summarized on one page: executing the contract itself, outlining the project plan, a preliminary report and a final report.
“The City did not specify how the money would be spent, including requirements on administrative costs; a method for compensating community participants; research methodology requirements; and details on how the City would use the results,” McCarthy’s office wrote in a letter accompanying the audit.
McCarthy’s office found that the contract was “specifically directed” to King County Equity Now, before the contract was even awarded.
It also found that Freedom Project subcontracted out its obligations under the contract, without prior written consent from the city, in violation of the contract.
City Councilmembers Tammy Morales, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González chose, in November, to award the contract to Freedom Project, without putting it out for bids.
In a written statement, through a spokesperson, the four council members said they welcomed the auditor’s report, noting it found no violations.
“We appreciate the recommendations contained in the management letter on how we can improve our contracting processes and look forward to working with the Mayor and her Executive team on improving citywide policies on contracting,” the council members said.
Durkan, through a spokesperson, said the council’s process “led to confusion and conflict in the community.”
“As outlined in her veto, Mayor Durkan had significant concerns with the City Council’s process,” spokesperson Kamaria Hightower wrote. “While Mayor Durkan’s decision was unpopular at the time, this work to elevate BIPOC voices was too important to get wrong,” she said, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color.
King County Equity Now criticized Durkan, whose administration had written to the state auditor asking questions about the contract.
“The investigation’s clear, foreseeable findings confirming legality should serve as another indictment on her tenure,” the organization said.
Freedom Project disputed the auditor’s finding that it did not have written consent to hire subcontractors.
The end result of the contract, the Black Brilliance Research Project Report, runs nearly 1,300 pages, although the vast majority of the report, more than 1,100 pages, consists of older 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 as much as $30 million in 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 that would focus on wellness.
All five focus areas are already the subject of either significant investment, significant debate, or both.
Participatory budgeting has been pushed back until at least next year, as the council has demurred on the complex and staff-heavy process proposed in the report.
Meanwhile, a separate $30 million aimed at boosting communities of color and proposed by a Durkan-convened task force has been approved and will be spent as part of this year’s budget.