Statement on Participatory Budgeting

May 13, 2013 at 2:07 pm

In the wake of the Participatory Budgeting process in 4 Chicago wards, including my own, in which several great projects to improve pedestrian and bike safety were voted on, I have a few remarks about the process in general.

Some groups and individuals have commented on the process, with most complaints of the following sort:

  • Voters in each ward are not representative of the population residing in the ward
  • The project creation process is oppressive or represents special interests
  • The projects don’t address the needs of the community
  • There was no way to vote against projects, only for them
  • “I didn’t know about it”

As this process will hopefully occur again and in more wards around the City, it should be noted that the process is open to all. Community Representatives (those who essentially create the projects) are not pre-selected, screened, or otherwise restricted from participating. Planning or government knowledge are not necessary to participate: One only has to care about their neighborhood and make a time commitment of about 20-25 hours over 7 months.

Voting, too, is not restrictive. In fact, it is more open than voting in most US elections: 16 year olds as well as non-citizens can vote, as long as they reside in the ward. US citizens are not the only stakeholders in their neighborhoods, and they are given a vote. Residents are not restricted from voting in any other way.

While the majority of voters in the past have been homeowners at rates higher than those of the ward, it does not mean that outreach is being withheld from certain groups. Thinking about it, wouldn’t you be more concerned with your community if you owned property in it? This isn’t to say that renters do not have a stake in their community (I rent an apartment myself), but homeowners just might have lived in the community longer and may be more interested in local politics. These people in turn come out to vote in larger numbers.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

The outreach process could and should be improved in the future. The Community Representatives were largely given the responsibility of outreach, and handed out flyers at CTA stations. I did see a lot of outreach online, which is problematic for lower-income voters who may not have access to the Internet. Direct mailing is probably the best way to reach everyone in the ward, but is also expensive. The best thing that can be done is get the word out. So instead of creating websites to discredit the process and those involved, for example, create a website to get the word out instead. Here’s a good post about a particular group that seems to have trouble grasping this concept.

Finally, the project selection and voting process. If projects like “Walkable 46,” which included sidewalk repairs and pedestrian countdown timers, or the Leland Greenway, which will calm Leland Ave to make it safer for pedestrians and people on bikes, represent “special interests,” then I’m not sure what a non-special interest is. Everyone is a pedestrian at some point. Over 40% of people in Uptown do not own a car; even more rarely use theirs. These projects were created from the ground up by several people who know the community well and would like to improve it for everyone. When projects like painting lines to denote parking spaces were brought up, all members of the group discussed the pros and cons, the cost, and whether or not it was feasible or worthwhile. After many hours and meetings, a final project list was created. At least in the 46th ward, there was little input from Alderman Cappleman himself on what ended up on the final ballot. Each group wrote the title and description for each project.

The menu funds to be allocated can also be used only on projects like the one on each ballot. They cannot be used for keeping schools open, they cannot be used for multimillion bridge repairs, and they can’t be used to improve a private business.

The voting process is no more different than voting in any other election. I cannot vote against a presidential candidate, unless you consider not voting for him/her as a vote “against.” Each voter was given 6 votes; not every vote had to be used.

All told, this was a good process, and I am pleased with the results. As with all first runs, there will be kinks to work out in the future. With these projects, safer routes for pedestrians and people on bikes will appear, and everyone will benefit. The bottom line is that Participatory Budgeting has taken a previously undemocratic process and given the people of the community a say in how their tax dollars are spent. It would be foolish to return to the old way of the Alderman having the final and ultimate say in how residents’ funds are spent.