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Participatory Budgeting: In a Chicago Ward, Residents Call the Spending Shots

4 years ago
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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."

Watch here:

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.'"
Filed Under: Woman Up, Budget, International

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Other Tom

@Noth Side Hugh

I take offense at your view of my ward. Overwhelmed by gang violence? Please. Only if you think everyone under thirty must be a gang member. I stay in the 49th Ward because of its culture, optimism, and diversity. It is a far cry from what you describe.

No plan for growth? Have you not walk my ward's streets in the last ten years? There are signs of growth everywhere. Businesses opening up (and not your usual low rent businesses) on Morse for the first time in what seems like decades, Streetscaping on the same stretch, and more planned on Howard. Clark and Howard shopping center, A rebuild Howard L station, North of Howard "Jungle" is now actually walkable. The list goes on and on. Our ward has the third lowest per capita crime rates in the city. All of this together creates a climate of attraction for businesses.

As far as Participatory Budgeting be a ploy for votes. So what? What's your point? Doing the right thing should get you votes, wouldn't you say? Isn't something that opens up the political and government process to the community a good thing? Would you rather have it stay a one person decision? Is that what you're saying? When is that last time you heard of 1,600+ persons in any ward in the city be involved in a political/governmental decision process, outside of election day? Joe should be congratulated on doing this. He is an example of progressiveness to the other 49 Alderman. Other wards should be so lucky to have someone like Joe. Believe me. I lived in a few for a while.

You claim the campaign was "most offensive"? Need I remind you of four years ago? The vitrol that was oozing out of every corner of the blogosphere aimed at Joe. I remember a certain Hugh back then screaming out his keyboard them claiming bloody murder when things don't go his way. It's always the same, isn't it?

You have many opinions, but never once have I seen you every advocate for anything. What's your plan, Northside?

By the way, don't forget to vote for your pal Bernie Stone in a few weeks.

March 17 2011 at 8:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

For me, it's all about "accentuating the positive."

Bottom Line: Participatory Budgeting has not only meant funding for neighborhood projects, but has energized neighbors, getting them more involved in their community. This results in building stronger community, which leads to improving quality of life. For me, Participatory Budgeting has unquestionably been a positive development.

I cannot speak to what motivated Joe Moore to initiate Participatory Budgeting in the ward, but what I can say is that it has gotten people more involved and more aware of their community and city services ... which basically translates to: who cares what motivated it, it's here, and its effecting positive change in our area.

March 17 2011 at 1:59 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
North Side Hugh

I also live in Rogers Park and have for many years. And I mean no disrespect to you, but I've observed Joe Moore for numerous elections, and there is a reason he is known as Joe "Foie Gras" Moore. Over his 21 years in office, he has focused very little time and effort on his own ward, choosing instead to enact such memorable legislation as the great Foie Gras Ban, which only served to embarrass the city of Chicago on a global basis before the city council repealed it.

You can brag about his PB efforts all you like, but its only real achievement has been to mask the many classic Chicago political dirty tricks that Joe employs, particularly during election season. He makes claims of being a progressive, yet the majority of his funding comes from real estate developers who need zoning favors but never actually seem to complete developments that improve our community.

Again, no disprespect to your opinion, but Joe Moore is not a progresse or even slightly intelligent about his efforts. People have been asking for his plan to bring new business to the 49th ward for years, and he simply doesn't have one. He has no plan.

His preference is to let people participate in such relatively meaningless things as a few public murals and basic street repairs, knowing it will placate the few voters who turn out every four years. He will also literally pull every dirty political trick in the book at election time. It's been proven over and over.

I don't call that leadership.

March 14 2011 at 11:09 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I am not sure which reality North Side Hugh is experiencing, but as someone who lives in Rogers Park, I have seen Alderman Moore engaged as a full time representative for our ward. His efforts started with establishment of Community Policing and continues with Participatory Budgeting . Alderman Moore has been leading the way to provide all of us the tools to improve the neighborhood where we live.

March 13 2011 at 9:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
North Side Hugh

While this article takes an interesting look at the concept of participatory budgeting, it somewhat misses the mark on the motivation behind it. In reality, after coming very close to losing his job due to a complete lack of service in his ward, Joe Moore drummed up this tactic as a way to gain votes from roughly 20 percent of the Rogers Park community that bothers to vote.

In reality, Joe Moore's participatory budgeting program achieved very little beyond a few street signs, some public murals and scattered road repairs. This is Chicago politics at its finest. During the most recent election, Joe declared himself a visionary for employing a very low level of participatory budget, but then issued countless outright lies about his opponent in one of the most offensive campaigns his ward has ever seen.

In fact, Joe Moore only shows up in his ward every four years in a desperate, say anything effort to keep his job. I encourage the author of this article to do a bit more research. You will see that Joe Moore's ward is still overwhelmed by gang violence, open air drug markets and literally no organized plan for growth, while Joe Moore proudly declares victory with a few public murals and random street repairs.

March 11 2011 at 10:14 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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