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Aldermen Thu Oct 18 2012
It's not often you hear about a Chicago alderman willingly relinquishing power.
But Ald. James Cappleman is doing just that.
Cappleman's 46th Ward is one of four wards in the city (the others being the 5th, 45th and 49th) taking part in what's known as participatory budgeting. Through participatory budgeting, ward residents -- rather than aldermen -- get the chance to decide what to do with $1 million of aldermanic discretionary funds, which are known as "menu money." The only caveat? Menu money must only be used for capital improvement projects, rather than programs or services.
Although the 49th Ward has gone through the participatory budgeting process every year since 2009, this is the first time the other wards -- including the 46th -- are taking part.
On Wednesday evening, about a dozen residents of Cappleman's Uptown ward gathered in the cafeteria of Thorek Hospital to kick around ideas for spending 2012's menu money. Among the ideas were sidewalk repairs, public art projects, solar-powered trash compactors and community gardens.
Deciding how to spend the annual menu money is a four-step process, according to Maria Hadden, a project coordinator at Participatory Budgeting Chicago. Step one, she said, are the neighborhood meetings, which will take place throughout October at various sites in each participating ward. At those meetings, residents kick around ideas for spending the menu money.
After the neighborhood assemblies, residents who signed up to be community representatives will meet several times between November and March to decide the final list of projects for which ward residents can vote. The third step, voting on which projects will receive menu money, will happen in May, Hadden said.
Dino Iaconetti, who has lived near the intersection of Leland and Sheridan for about six years, believed a good chunk of the menu money should be used for beautification efforts.
"We've got to increase curb appeal of properties in Uptown," he said, adding that more green space and planters would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. "We don't have new businesses coming in."
At the same time, Iaconetti said, the annual allotment of menu money is not much and he recognizes that other people may have different ideas for how to spend it.
"It's only a million dollars," he said. "It doesn't go very far."
Hadden, a 49th Ward resident who got involved with Participatory Budgeting Chicago after seeing how it worked in her ward, told the crowd the same thing.
"It seems like a lot of money at first," she said. "But it needs to go a long way."
Cappleman said he wanted to implement participatory budgeting in his ward in order to really give residents a say in how the money is spent, rather than just paying them lip service.
"It's easy for an alderman to say, 'I listened to what the people want and this is my decision,'" he said.
Cappleman acknowledged that while going through the participatory budgeting process, residents might make some decisions about spending the menu money he doesn't care for. But, he said, that doesn't matter because the goal is not to make him happy, but rather to do the greatest good for the ward.
"Will there be some decisions I don't like? Absolutely," he said."My goal is to make a strong community. I don't have to have my way."
Cappleman said that even if he feels that the idea which gets the most votes in May is ridiculous, he won't veto the decision of his constituents. He knows giving up the power over the menu money is a risky decision, but it's one he's comfortable with.
"In a sense, I'm being asked to give up some of that power," he said. "I'm OK with it."