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Ward Politics Mon Dec 17 2012

Participatory Budgeting: Could It Work Citywide?

At first blush, Vallejo, Calif. and Chicago couldn't seem more different.

The most immediately noticeable difference is in population. The official city website of Vallejo lists its population at 117,798. Chicago's website lists a population of 2,695,598 -- nearly 23 times that of Vallejo.

Physically, the city of Chicago is also bigger. According to the cities' respective websites, Chicago covers 237 square miles of land, while Vallejo only covers 53.58.

But while these two cities, separated by half a country and 2,103 miles (according to Google Maps), seem almost polar opposites, they do share at least one common trait: participatory budgeting.

Vallejo is the only city in the United States to employ the participatory budgeting process on a citywide level. In Chicago, only four of the city's 50 wards -- the 5th, 45th, 46th and 49th -- are employing the process.

But Marti Brown, the Vallejo city council member who brought participatory budgeting to the small northern California city, said recently that she thinks the process, wherein residents choose how to spend a certain amount of discretionary money, could work on a citywide level in Chicago. Brown believes that if aldermen of the 46 Chicago wards that do not employ participatory budgeting see that it is successful elsewhere in the city, they will be likely to bring it to their wards.

In Chicago, participatory budgeting is a four-step process in which residents decide how to spend $1 million in aldermanic discretionary funds, known as "menu money." The caveat is that the money must be spent on capital improvement projects, as opposed to services.

In October, each participating ward held several community meetings where residents could spitball ideas for how to spend the money. Step two began last month and runs through March, when residents who asked to be community leaders will meet to decide which projects will wind up on the final list for residents to vote on. Step three will be the vote in May and the final step is implementation of the projects residents voted for.

The process is roughly the same in Vallejo, Brown said, though instead of menu money, residents are deciding how to spend $3.2 million from a sales tax voters approved last year.

Getting the process rolling has not been easy, Brown said.

"We just don't have the staff capacity," she said.

Brown said there was also some skepticism from the city council and mayor about the participatory budgeting process. In fact, she added, the process was only approved by a 4-3 margin and that it will not return for the next fiscal year if the council does not re-approve it.

"They're treating it like a pilot," she said. "I think they're waiting to see the outcome of the process."

But despite the skepticism, Brown is confident that there is enough support for participatory budgeting on the Vallejo council.

"I think that they know what they signed up for," she said.

Brown believes the same is true in Chicago. She said 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore, the first Chicago alderman to employ participatory budgeting, has done a great job getting the word out and getting people excited about the process. That goes a long way toward combating doubt, she said.

Brown believes that the participatory budgeting process is a good fit for both Vallejo and Chicago and is worth the challenges.

"It's a long process," she said. "It's deliberative democracy at its best."

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