Joe Moore, an alderman from Chicago's 49th Ward, was nearly voted out of office in 2007 by frustrated constituents. So he decided to try something new.
With help from the Participatory Budgeting Project, Moore turned his $1.3 million discretionary budget over to the 60,000 residents of his ward, a vibrant neighborhood encompassing Rogers Park on Chicago's North Side.
Residents of the 49th – who collectively speak 80 languages, and constitute one of the most diverse communities in America – deliberated and prioritized their needs through research and data collection, and voted democratically on a series of community-improvement projects, including street resurfacing, traffic control signals, bike lanes, community gardens, and murals.
Moore won re-election with a landslide 72 percent of the ward's vote on Feb. 22, and residents have already started working on plans for a second year of participatory budgeting in their neighborhood.
"There is no question in my mind that participatory budgeting played a large role in my overwhelming victory," Moore told Politics Daily. "It was the single most popular initiative that I have launched in my 20 years as alderman."
Participatory budgeting is a small but energetic movement through which ordinary people directly decide how a portion of their municipal budget is spent. Pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1990 as a democratization strategy, the process has spread to over 1,200 cities around the world. From Cologne, Germany, to Entebbe, Uganda, the concept is giving more people more control over how their tax dollars are spent.
Although participatory budgeting has been recognized as a best practice of democratic governance by the United Nations, no elected official in the United States had ever invited citizens to allocate public money directly – that is, until May 2009, when Chicago's 49th Ward took the leap.
Polls show that most Americans don't actually know what the federal budget includes, and many of us are equally in the dark when it comes to municipal budgets.
"The energy was pretty incredible," said Maria Hadden, a 49th Ward resident who had joined the leadership committee for planning this year's process. "It captured the attention of a large part of the community."
Following Moore's lead, seven aldermanic candidates who pledged to implement participatory budgeting were elected in February 2011, according to a release from the Participatory Budgeting Project.
Some aldermanic candidates, like Ameya Pawar of the 47th Ward, campaigned vigorously on a platform of participation. A 30-year-old former Northwestern University program assistant, Pawar has became the first Indian-American to be elected to the Chicago City Council.
"What I've heard over the course of the campaign is that a lot of [discretionary-fund dollars] have been used to achieve political ends," he said. "You might see the same streets receive attention again and again. There isn't a holistic plan. Money and resources are thrown at certain things, without worry about process or how it plugs into a larger system."
Though $1.3 million might seem like a small amount, Pawar argued, over a four-year term this represents $5.2 million that can be allocated collectively. "What we should be doing as a community is programming those dollars in an effective and equal way," he said.
Other aldermen were measured in their enthusiasm.
Leslie Hairston of the 5th Ward said she loved the idea of participatory budgeting, but would have trouble implementing it without a full-time staff person to organize the process.
Proco "Joe" Moreno from the 1st Ward told Politics Daily, "I have an extremely diverse ward, both racially and economically. Let's say I have a street that has all millionaire stay-at-home fathers. They all want flower pots at the end of the street. On another street, it's all single mothers that have ten kids. The last thing on their mind is organizing."
Moreno said that he is working with his staff on designing a mechanism to deal with the possibility that wealthier residents or special-interest groups might try to co-opt the process.
But Josh Lerner, co-director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, says that Moreno's extreme example has yet to be the case in the 1,000-plus participating cities.
"Millionaires can already get what they want through other means, so they don't need to participate in participatory budgeting to get flower pots," Lerner said. "When community members meet face to face for regular meetings over the course of several months, they tend to move from individual interests to the common good. It's hard to sit across the table from someone who clearly has greater needs than you and still advocate for your interests over theirs," he said.
Still, there are legitimate concerns about barriers to participation. Latino turnout was particularly low in the 49th Ward, according to data collected by Gena Miller, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Some ways to overcome this, according to 49th Ward resident Maria Hadden, would be to collaborate with organizations that have experience mobilizing underrepresented communities, provide food and interpretation at public meetings, schedule meetings at convenient times and places for working people, and produce publicity that is appealing to people who tend not to turn out. Hadden says her leadership committee is working on taking steps to make sure that everyone has an equal voice.
In a video about the participatory budgeting in the 49th Ward, a ward resident on the transportation committee addressed potential tensions between competing interests:
"We have members of our community that are very passionate about getting away from a car-based lifestyle; then of course we have members of our community who live a car-based lifestyle," she said. "So there's some tension there, and anytime you bring passion with tension there's going to be a conflict. That's a challenge, I don't think that's a bad thing. I think we've been able to work through that."
Alderman Moore cautions that it is one thing to make a promise on the campaign trail, and quite another to actually undertake participatory budgeting, a logistically challenging and time-consuming process.
Community members in the 49th Ward met for three months, conducting research and designing proposals, before they voted on final budget proposals. And it took Alderman Moore and his staff over a year to plan the process and implement each stage of it.
Meanwhile, six additional Aldermanic candidates who support participatory budgeting are heading for run-off elections on April 5: David Moore (17th Ward), Cuahutemoc Morfin (25th Ward), Michelle Smith (43rd Ward), John Arena (45th Ward), James Cappleman (46th Ward), Deborah Silverstein (50th Ward).
According to Lerner, the Participatory Budgeting Project is in discussions with elected officials and community groups about introducing the process in New York City; Boston; San Francisco; Springfield, Mass.; Providence, R.I.; and Greensboro, N.C. "The conversations are very promising," he said.
Alderman Moore has said that he is happy to act as a resource for other government officials who are interested in taking the plunge. He is also planning on telling Rahm Emanuel, Chicago's new mayor, about participatory budgeting as soon as he gets the opportunity.
"What I have found is that when you give up power, you gain power," he said. "My constituents have a better sense of the challenges and constraints of city governance, and when they don't like something, I say, 'Hey, that was your neighbor's decision. If you don't like it, come out and participate. This is a democracy.'"
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