Around the United States and here in Chicago, city leaders are increasingly asking residents for suggestions about budget spending. Here in the 49th Ward, we’re going one step further. Through a novel experiment in democracy, I’m not just asking for your opinion–I’m asking you to make real decisions about how we spend our money.
Each alderman in Chicago receives slightly over $1.3 million a year to spend at their discretion on various capital improvements in their wards. This so-called “menu money” goes for neighborhood improvement projects, such as resurfacing streets and alleys; repairing sidewalks, curbs and gutters; installing new streetlights; and other infrastructure needs.
Aldermen also use their menu money to subsidize special infrastructure projects, such as rebuilding playgrounds and subsidizing the construction of new public buildings. So long as the funds are used for capital improvements, aldermen are accorded wide discretion on how to allocate their budget.
Eight years ago, I decided to adopt a different approach. Rather than me determining how to spend the money, I turned that power over to the residents of my ward. Beginning in 2009 and continuing every year since then, I allocate $1 million of my $1.3 million dollar budget to a democratic process known as Participatory Budgeting, or “PB49,” in which community residents decide by popular vote how to spend the Ward’s infrastructure budget.
The 49th Ward was the first political jurisdiction in the nation to adopt participatory budgeting as an approach to public spending, and it’s been so well-received that I pledged to make it a permanent fixture in the ward.
Word of our success has spread. This year, seven Chicago aldermen used participatory budgeting to decide how to spend their aldermanic menu money, and other cities in the U.S., including Boston, New York City, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Vallejo, California, are emulating the 49th Ward’s participatory budgeting model.
The 2017-18 PB49 process begins this summer with a format that tracks closely the four-step process we’ve employed the previous eight years.
You may ask yourself, didn’t we just vote in a Participatory Budgeting election?
In fact we did. This past May, 49th Ward residents turned out in record numbers to decide how to spend the 49th Ward’s 2017 “Aldermanic Menu” capital budget. For the results of that vote, click here.
Going forward, the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Management is asking all aldermen to submit their annual Aldermanic Menu requests much earlier in the year (no later than January) to ensure as many of our requests as possible get fulfilled in the same calendar year they are submitted.
To meet that request, a series of “Neighborhood Assemblies” will take place during the week of July 10 in which community residents will learn about the process and brainstorm ideas for projects needed in the 49th Ward. Some of these residents will volunteer to serve as “Community Representatives,” who meet throughout the summer to research the ideas, determine their feasibility, and winnow the project ideas to a list of finalists worthy of consideration by the entire community. This list is brought before community residents for input at two “Project Expos” held in September.
Finally, the proposed projects are submitted to a vote of the entire community at an election held during the first two weeks of October. All community residents, aged 16 and older, regardless of citizenship status, are eligible to vote. I agree to abide by the results of the vote and will submit the projects with the most votes to the City and its sister agencies for implementation.
A “Leadership Committee” consisting of 49th Ward residents who served either on last year’s last year’s Leadership Committee or as a Community Representative oversees the process.
This experiment in democracy will not work unless we have full and complete participation from all sectors of our diverse community, so I urge you to get involved.
Attend one of the neighborhood assemblies and bring your 49th Ward friends and neighbors and your ideas for projects you would like to see. Better yet, volunteer to serve as a Community Representative to help take those ideas and make them a reality.
I truly believe that the residents of the 49th Ward can decide what’s best for our neighborhood, when given enough time, information, and support.