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Black-led organizers, Sawant at odds with mayor over community’s role in how City of Seattle spends

By Ben Adlin

After a summer marked by protests over police racism and brutality, Seattle officials and community organizers seem to agree that vulnerable communities deserve a greater say in the city’s budget process. But with little more than a month before the City Council adopts its 2021 budget, stakeholders still differ sharply over what that involvement will look like.

There are competing visions. Some focus on a $100 million fund proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan to support initiatives aimed at benefiting Black, brown, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities. A task force made up of representatives from local equity organizations, selected by the mayor, would guide the process by issuing recommendations on how the money might be spent. Durkan’s office last week announced an initial list of more than two dozen members.

Others see another way — put forward by King County Equity Now, a Black-led coalition of community groups and businesses, alongside the group Decriminalize Seattle — and are skeptical of the mayor’s proposal. Little about Durkan’s plan, they say, would put sufficient power in the hands of BIPOC communities, particularly Black people, to undo generations of racist policies in the city.

Instead, KCEN and its partner groups are hard at work on the first phase of a grander budget scheme aimed at giving Seattleites a more direct say in issues that affect their daily lives. That process could eventually control up to $200 million, some organizers say—twice the mayor’s proposed BIPOC fund.

The two views represent contrasting visions of the growing push for participatory budgeting centered on the principle that the people most affected by public policies deserve a voice in how they’re made.


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“In a process like that, it looks like people who are closest to the problem setting priorities around the solutions,” LéTania Severe, a KCEN research, said in a video meeting last week. “With participatory budgeting, you get to allow people in the community, anyone—regardless of your age or your voter status or your immigration status or your incarceration status—it gives you the opportunity to put in proposals around how that money should be spent.”

Unsurprisingly in Seattle’s sometimes fractured political landscape, there is a third point of view on all of this. Councilmember Kshama Sawant annual People’s Budget process kicks off Tuesday night in a town hall meeting.

While Sawant’s office didn’t respond to questions from CHS about her support for participatory budgeting, a statement she issued late last month described the People’s Budget effort as “developed by grassroots advocates” and “based on the needs of working people.” In the past, it has been used to crystalize the budgeting priorities for Sawant and Socialist Alternative supporters as causes like $15 Now and Tax Amazon formed.

Sawant also derided the mayor’s budget plan. “Behind her gauzy rhetoric about ‘reimagining policing’ and the ‘largest-ever investment in racial equity and justice,’” the councilmember said, “Mayor Durkan is proposing a business-as-usual budget that fundamentally fails working people, especially in Black and Brown communities.”

Durkan, for her part, has described the $100 million BIPOC fund as a “community-based and community-led process.” In an email to CHS, her office noted that the task force could even recommend that some of the $100 million be used to launch a participatory budgeting pilot program.

Durkan’s office also stressed that the city already consults with hundreds of individual community members on various spending projects, adding that budgeting authority “cannot be delegated to non-electeds” under city and state law.

“The City has joint Council and Mayor’s office appointed committees, commissions, councils, and task forces … that have hundreds of community members at the table who advise the Mayor and Council on a range of issues that include the budget,” spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said in an email. “City departments also have numerous community stakeholders and include individuals from programs like P-Patch community gardens, the Neighborhood Matching Fund, [and] Business Improvement Areas, who they typically engage to better understand community needs.”

Beneath the disagreement over how to structure public participation in budgeting is a deep distrust among many Black advocates that the mayor is actually on their side. Many have noted that Durkan initially advertised the $100 million fund as a way to invest specifically in “Black youth and adults,” only later expanding its scope to include all people of color.

While that made the plan more inclusive, it also sent the signal to some that the mayor was more interested in diversity virtue-signalling than responding to inequities that disproportionately affect Black people.

The antidote to the problem is simple, they say: Bring more Black community members to the table.

“When we say community voice we don’t mean some task force that is cherry-picked by white wealthy people who already have access to political power,” KCEN research director Shaun Glaze said at a press conference last month. “Instead of having pre-set priorities, instead of having hand-selected task forces, we are pushing for a community voice and community power to be at the center.”

KCEN and other community organizers have balked at the idea that Durkan’s task force qualifies as true participatory budgeting. “We oppose a Mayor-driven taskforce with hand-picked, appointed members, as it does not reflect a community-designed and driven democratic process,” the coalition said in a joint statement of principles on the 2021 budget process, titled “Towards a Solidarity Budget.”

KCEN’s own participatory budgeting plan, by contrast, would be open to any residents—and would allow individuals more direct influence over decision-making. Community members would be able to submit ideas based on the group’s research, and subject-area experts would help craft those ideas into workable policies.

“It’s an opportunity to take power out of the hands of a few elected officials who typically do not look like us,” Severe said, “and allow more people in the community … an opportunity to have a voice in how a lot of money gets spent in the city,”

For the past several weeks, KCEN and its allies have been building out a community research team to measure inequities in the city and identify solutions that might begin to address them. The effort, known as the Black Brilliance Project, has so far brought on more than 100 community researchers, Severe said last week. All the researchers complete a rigorous research ethics training program, she said.

In the coming months, the research teams will delve into health and public safety issues, cataloguing the experiences of city residents and identifying obstacles facing vulnerable communities. Some research projects, such as a community safety survey aimed at all Seattle residents, have already begun, while others are still in the early stages.

The research is unfolding under the framework of a document put forward by Decriminalize Seattle and KCEN, which have called for the city to cut the Seattle Police Department budget in half. Their 2020 Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Re-Investment, released this summer, calls for a minimum $3 million initial investment into research meant to guide participatory budgeting. The blueprint was developed with the help of the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project.

The City Council approved that initial $3 million investment during this summer’s budget rebalancing process, overturning a veto by Mayor Durkan. But so far none of that money has funded the Black Brilliance Project’s research efforts. Late last month, PubliCola reported that the project’s primary source of funding was the Africatown Community Land Trust.

Councilmember Tammy Morales led the $3 million legislation. In an email on Monday, her office told CHS that the City Council is in the process of finalizing a contract to allow that money to be paid out.

“The original sponsors (González, Herbold, Morales, Mosqueda) are hoping to contract with a 501c3 [nonprofit organization] that will work with King County Equity Now,” said LaKecia Farmer, a Morales policy analyst. “We are right in the middle of completing the contract to free up the funds.”

Farmer renewed Morales’s support for KCEN’s research plan and its role in participatory budgeting. “Councilmember Morales endorsed the community research plan by KCEN,” they said, “and is invested in expanding Participatory Budgeting in 2021 through a divestment of criminal legal system funds, with the majority being from the police budget. How much will be deliberated in the upcoming weeks.”

KCEN organizers have pushed for a 50% funding cut to the Seattle Police Department, which they say recognizes law enforcement’s oppressive impacts on Black communities. Money would then be reinvested into the community through a participatory budgeting process.

The mayor’s proposal, by contrast, would pay for the $100 million BIPOC fund by sapping the city’s financial reserves and using money from a recently passed tax on high-paid corporate workers. Her proposed budget would also eliminate an existing $30 million community equity fund—a move KCEN criticized as “yet another display of anti-Blackness.”

KCEN’s plan to cut SPD’s budget by half, the group says, would make considerably more money available for participatory budgeting. “The mayor already mentioned that she was setting aside $100 million for BIPOC communities,” Severe said. “We’re asking for a 50 percent divestment from SPD, and that’s closer to $200 million if you look at their 2020 budget. That’s $200 million that we’re demanding the city to put aside for a 2021 participatory budgeting process.”


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James in the CD
James in the CD
1 month ago

Love Love Love this! No one stands for the people better than Sawant!

I think it’s time we seriously defunded the police and not in the way Durkan did (measley 5% cut). It needs to be full 50%. Police are not needed. We need community workers working WITH people and not against them and gassing them. It’s not hard. Cops existing is morally wrong. They are property protectors and aggressors. They do not care about the people they hurt.

CityOfVagrants
CityOfVagrants
1 month ago

What happens when these “community workers” refuse to engage with the most violent and mentally disturbed individuals that we’ve spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to help?

You already see the fire department refusing to respond without police assistance to fires at many encampments. You really think some poorly paid social worker is going to risk their lives?

Look we can all agree the police get away with murder. It’s disgusting and unacceptable. But the answer to this problem is accountability, not anarchy.

Brian
Brian
1 month ago
Reply to  CityOfVagrants

Under a model where the city uses third-part providers, those providers take on all the legal liability.
This will shift of civil and criminal liability, which will be shifted to the providers and their employees!
Open government and accountability was last year’s issue, the move to providers eliminates both of these issues.
On a state and federal level, the movement to defund private prisons?
Seattle is trying to show just how wrong of an idea that is, third-party providers are the future!
Just think about how awesome this is? :)

RWK
RWK
1 month ago

“Police are not needed.”

What a naive view. You don’t need police….until you need them. Grow up and join the real world.

James in the CD
James in the CD
1 month ago
Reply to  RWK

I can defend my own home thank you. I don’t need property protectors to come several hours later to write something in a notebook and then never follow up. Rather that money go to mental health.

Come on right now
Come on right now
1 month ago

Shout out to black people. Love and support them.

But where are the other minorities in this fight for “more”? People of various Asian backgrounds seem to be a much larger population here and I just don’t see them spinning up groups to represent their interests. Are they just missing a great opportunity to fight for “more”?

James in the CD
James in the CD
1 month ago

SMH…..

Come on bruh

Tom
Tom
1 month ago

Different culture, and people often don’t feel the need to fight for more if they are already doing well financially.

Jamel
Jamel
1 month ago

Its hard to read some of the comments here and not be condescending. This is all so insane to me. I really don’t get people any longer. Community Policing? As if that’s a real thing. It sounds like a money grab to me. What Community Groups are going to arrest rapists, murders, and thief’s? Spare me.

James in the CD
James in the CD
1 month ago
Reply to  Jamel

The leftover 20-30% police will focus on detective work and arresting rapists and pedophiles and murderers and detective work tracking down items stolen over substantial amounts. Drug crimes should be decriminalized. We are going to invest in mental health and not aggressors who are looking to fill a quota with speeding tickets and drug crimes. Good riddance!

csy
csy
1 month ago

So, speeding will be decriminalized as well?

yetanotherhiller
yetanotherhiller
1 month ago

Yeah, making counterfeit pills out of fentanyl and selling them to teenagers is basically harmless, bruh.

CD Neighbor
CD Neighbor
1 month ago

Do you even live here…… when was the last time you *ever* saw SPD give a traffic ticket? And people are not even charged for drug possession any more.

CD Neighbor
CD Neighbor
1 month ago

@csy
Speeding basically has already been decriminalized…. No one ever gets a traffic ticket in this city unless they’ve been caught by an automatic camera (and I think the city discontinued those) or have actually caused an injury accident….. most drivers speed, most of the time and all we’ve done is put up toothless signs lowering the speed limit even more that are completely unenforceable and thus completely ignored.

HTS3
HTS3
1 month ago

Yep, great. Let’s decriminalize those drug laws. Next week it will be precisely six months since my 20 year-old son purchased a “street” Percocet, which of course was Fentanyl, and died. Nope, no arrests. We still need police. And you can’t just get it done with detectives. Where do you think those detectives get a lot of their information—the cop on the street. Sorry, the whole “defund the police” makes a great bumpersticker, but it doesn’t work in the real world. My two cents.

Jamel
Jamel
1 month ago

What about violent assaults (which happen out in public regularly now) along with major drug and human trafficking, which is a huge problem in Seattle out in the open. Decriminalizing meth, heroin, is so dumb so dumb dumb dumb. Those drugs are scary addictive and the threat of arrest is the only thing that sort of keeps it at bay.
Sorry to say James in the CD, but you are delusional if you think 20%-30% of Police is enough to deal with all of that.

csy
csy
1 month ago

What about driving under the influence? Decriminalize that, too?

Jesus
Jesus
1 month ago

How about organized crime? Rico Laws? White collar financial crimes? You idiots think you know better than YEARS of law enforcement experience. Seattle has about the dumbest people I have ever seen.

Nick
Nick
1 month ago

Wait, wait, wait, what’s the point of elections at all then? I vote for elected representatives so they can stand in for me during the political decision making process. That includes budgeting, even on a small slice of the budget like the 100-200 million BIPOC fund . The only new people who will be sitting at the table in Sawant’s vision for budgeting are people who have the time, energy, and resources to do so. That’s not me, that’s Sawant’s large coalition. She’s just packing the room with her supporters. The districts get one voice in the room, that’s the point of the council. You can always contact your elected representative. I agree, a lot of this is on Durkan. She shouldn’t be crafting budgets that won’t pass the council, but the Seattle City Council is just 9 voices in the room and they still have trouble doing anything but saying what they DON’T like. Forget about agreeing on something. Now we’re planning to add a bunch more people to the conversation. And Sawant’s messaging suggests this is just a Trojan horse for changing how ALL the city budgeting is done. Which is a waste of time and energy on her part. The last thing the other 8 politicians on the City Council want is to secede power

Colleen
Colleen
1 month ago

If anyone from KCEN reads this comment, I’d love more information about the process for hiring, screening and training these 100 community researchers. What is going to be the output of the group? Are there particular research methods being used? Are these workers paid? I want to be more informed about the group and have emailed/tweeted/carrier pigeon-ed these questions but never got an answer.

Sheryl
Sheryl
1 month ago

King Co Equity lost influence when one of its leaders, Nikkita Oliver, repeatedly supported property destruction during protests on her twitter feed (you can go see this on her feed, unless she has deleted). Maybe some of the funding going into policing property destruction could be used more effectively for other uses in this city.

James in the CD
James in the CD
1 month ago
Reply to  Sheryl

Wrong. She’s gaining more and more support locally and nationally with endorsements from Amy Goodman and many other top political outlets. Oliver should be mayor. Ridiculous comment.

yetanotherhiller
yetanotherhiller
1 month ago

Oliver didn’t make it past the primary, for good reason.

Glenn
Glenn
1 month ago

Should be mayor…. Well, she tried. How much of the vote did she get? Less than twenty percent, if I recall. Her candidacy for mayor was soundly rejected by the voters of this city. So, should shebe mayor? No, definitely not.

seaguy
seaguy
1 month ago
Reply to  Sheryl

She might have earned a law degree but she advocates for lawlessness.

Sam
Sam
1 month ago

A bit tired of funding ‘community groups’ – which seem to suck up a large part of our bloated, poorly effective homeless budget. A sad addict crying at Dick’s on Broadway the other day, made me think of poor resource allocation and priority setting. Community groups getting $ lead to very vocal and influential interests, is it possible to get to similar goals by operating more directly through the city? And I realize this may not be popular but our businesses are failing our homeless need housing and we are in the midst of a pandemic-prioritizing getting through this together, including our black communities, is a critical need.

Whichever
Whichever
1 month ago

If they’d like a say on where and how the City spends its money, they are free to run for a council seat.

RWK
RWK
1 month ago

I think that KCEN (a far left group) is being greedy. Durkan’s $100 million is alot of money, especially when the City budget is in peril due to the pandemic.

seaguy
seaguy
1 month ago

The problem with Sawant and the rest of the council is they seem to only listen to the activists who represent a vocal minority of citizens. Most citizens want police reform, but they also want public safety. You cannot defund the police by 50% and expect that public safety will not suffer. Already 911 response times are up for the North precinct. if you have ever had to call 911 those minutes matter when someone is beating at your door trying to break in to your apartment or something like that. No social worker is going to be able to come rescue someone in that situation.

Happy Gentrifier
Happy Gentrifier
1 month ago

Pink is a color. Just saying.