City Council ‘participatory budgeting’ to expand

After a dynamic inaugural year of inviting the public to help decide how the New York City Council spends some of its funds, four council members who pioneered the practice are about to have some company.

Sidewalk extensions like the one pictured here won $840,000 in a vote of Council member Jumaane Williams’ constituents in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Streetsblog.

In contrast to the typical closed-door, opaque decision-making behind council members’ individual member-item spending, under “participatory budgeting” four City Council members completely surrendered control of a combined total of $5.6 million of their discretionary capital budgets to a transparent decision-making process led by their constituents. Four more council members have now signed on to the program for its second year, which has just begun.

“My best hopes were really exceeded,” Council Member Brad Lander of said on Thursday at a discussion of the first year of participatory budgeting and release of a report on its accomplishments. The other council members to give participatory budgeting a go were Eric Ulrich of Queens, Melissa Mark-Viverito of Manhattan and the Bronx, and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn.

Starting this fall, Council members Dan Halloran and Mark Weprin of Queens and David Greenfield and Steven Levin of Brooklyn will also invite their constituents to decide how to spend capital funds in their districts.

What started as town hall meetings and neighborhood assemblies last fall, where 2,000 constituents proposed ideas, resulted in 6,000 people voting on the final choices, which ranged from adding security cameras to public housing projects to a new compositing site to convert food waste to usable soil. The 27 winning infrastructure projects were a result of thousands of hours of community input.

During the first year of the program, a team of scholars, researchers and graduate students closely tracked the program’s progress on behalf of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. The resulting report compared constituents’ participation in participatory budgeting to their involvement traditional electoral politics, using the 2009 City Council elections as a yardstick, and looking in particular at the involvement of minority and low-income participants. Participatory budgeting came out on top. In fact, 39 percent of participatory budgeting voters reported that they either sometimes miss, rarely vote or never vote in local elections.

Part of what gave participatory budgeting its legs, the report found, had to do with social networks. The most common way people found out about the neighborhood assemblies and budget votes was through friends and family.

This makes sense, said Josh Lerner, the executive director of the Partcipiatory Budgeting Project, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that works to advance the practice in the United States and Canada.

“A lot of participation comes down to relationships and networks,” he said.

Ann Bragg, a longtime East Harlem resident, served as a delegate for a seniors-only committee in Mark-Viverito’s district. Initially, she said, the seniors she approached were fearful of joining in, since they were used to feeling left behind in the political process. “What I had to do was go to them,” Bragg said. “It always took one or two to bring the others out.”

In previous years, the four council members had primarily allocated their discretionary funds to school, park and library improvements. Community members mostly followed suit, but some new trends emerged, too. Many of the proposals were for traffic and street repairs, public housing improvements, lights and security cameras and green space. Some ideas had to be rejected because they were not for capital projects – spending on physical infrastructure and improvements – or involved sources of funding beyond the council members’ control.

The average cost of winning projects was $201,361. The first of the projects to come as a result of participatory budgeting will break ground in January 2013.

Included among the approved projects was $100,000 toward transportation for the elderly and a Meals-on-Wheels delivery van — a modest, but tangible victory for Ann Bragg’s fellow seniors.

In perhaps a more significant triumph, Bragg reported, “I think they’re now more trusting of the government.”

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