PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday May 10th, 2013, 5:27pm

The Votes Are In: A Look At Participatory Budgeting In Chicago

More than 2,600 residents in four Chicago wards voted for community projects that will be funded by “menu money” last weekend as part of the participatory budgeting process. We take a closer look at the process and projects that were chosen.

More than 2,600 residents in four Chicago wards voted for community projects that will be funded by “menu money” last weekend as part of the participatory budgeting process.

Alds. Joe Moore (49th), John Arena (45th) James Cappleman (46th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) let their constituents decide how to divvy up $1 million in discretionary funds for ward improvements, such as street resurfacing and adding street signals. All four aldermen have recommitted to using the democratic process next year.

Voters in the wards approved projects ranging from an urban garden and new police video cameras to pigeon abatement in viaducts.

Fifth Ward Chief of Staff Kimberly Webb said the South Side residents in Hairston's ward were enthusiastic to be a part of the process.

“In the past, all the money we spent, we spent because they were projects that we thought should be done,” Webb said. “And this time around, we decided the money needs to be spent the way the constituents want.”

But just because the votes are in doesn’t mean the process is finished.

“The vote is a climatic event, but it is a cycle,” said Maria Hadden, project coordinator with the Participatory Budgeting (PB) Chicago project. “Even after the vote, the residents will still be doing monitoring, and there’s the project implementation process.”

PB Chicago started last fall with community brainstorming sessions. Various committees were created focusing on arts, transportation and public spaces, among others. Public meetings showcasing the various project proposals were held in each ward leading up to the May 4 vote. A few days of early voting were also held in each ward.

The Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is also helping to facilitate PB Chicago.

The 5th Ward had the lowest voter turnout with a little more than 100 people, while the 49th Ward had the highest turnout of about 1,400 voters. More than 500 people voted in the 46th Ward and about 650 people turned out in the 45th Ward.

All of the wards, however, faced participation problems due mostly in part to the lack of funding for community outreach. Some community members have also raised concerns over the inclusion of minorities throughout the process.

“We have very limited resources, and we really need some serious resources to pay for canvassers, so we can get some folks on the door,” said Thea Crum with the Great Cities Institute.

There are no city funds paying for this process, Hadden said. Menu money is also restricted to capital funds, so aldermen are not allowed to use any of it for participatory budgeting outreach, she said.

That’s not the case for some other cities using the process, she said. In New York City, for example, council members allocate some outreach money to non-profits that work in low-income communities of color.

Hadden said some foundations have donated funds for canvassers on the streets, specifically in Spanish-speaking communities, but it’s not enough.

“We need funding to do this at the beginning,” she said. “There’s absolute clear correlation, if you can get people on the street canvasing and doing outreach to low-income communities of color, they will show up to meetings and they will come out to vote.”

Concerns Over Inclusion

Participatory budgeting was first developed in Brazil in 1989 and more than 1,500 other cities around the world have adopted it.

In 2009, Moore was the first elected official in Chicago, and the country, to implement ward-based participatory budgeting. This year the other aldermen followed suit.

Members of Occupy Rogers Park Chicago, however, have been outspoken critics of the participatory budgeting process in the 49th Ward.

The group created a webpage, www.pb49.org, listing their concerns. The group says about 70 percent of participatory budgeting voters in the 49th Ward are white, college educated and homeowners. They say the demographics of people participating in the process are not in line with the diverse community.

Some of the Occupiers protested outside of an international participatory budgeting conference held at Loyola University’s lakeshore campus Saturday, the same day as the vote.

The protestors wore masks with white people’s faces on it in and held signs reading, “Does my voice matter now?”

"We love the idea of participatory democracy, but with PB49, we have an alderman shutting down the efforts of people who are willing to invest their time and money to make the process more inclusive,” organizer Babur Balos said in a statement from Occupy Rogers Park. “Moore controls the process, right down to the flyers that are distributed, with his name stamped on everything connected to the project. It's hard for people to get excited about joining a committee where they won't be allowed to make real change happen."

Crum said she is not sure where the group is getting its 70 percent figure.

“Obviously there’s always room for improvement in terms of how representative you are,” she said. “But overall, I thought, particularly for the neighborhood assemblies, and we’ll see when I’m able to really crunch the data for the vote, we’re seeing that we’re still fairly representative of each of the wards.”

Crum said PB Chicago worked with UIC master’s students in urban planning to develop outreach plans, assigning two students per ward.

PB Chicago was also able to gather a small pot of money to give to the Grassroots Collaborative for canvassing in the 46th Ward. Using census data, the canvassers were able to find and reach out to some of the low-income people as well as Spanish speakers in the area.

“It’s much more challenging to get some of those folks out, and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that this is really a very new way of engaging with government, and there’s a lot of distrust. And there’s a lot of folks who have been left out of the process in the past, not this process, but government in general,” Crum said.

She added that PB Chicago applauds Occupy Rogers Park’s efforts to make the process more inclusive.

“We invite them to do outreach so that we can build together,” she said.

Hadden added that it appears most of the Occupy members’ concerns are focused on the 49th Ward.

“I know that they were specifically protesting Ald. Moore, and they were unhappy with him, but I don’t think that they understood that there are more people involved in this than Ald. Moore,” she said.

Moore’s office did not return Progress Illinois’ request for comment on this story.

Specific Projects

In the 45th Ward, voters decided to spend more than half of the $1 million on street resurfacing and street lights.  Some of the additional top projects included viaduct remediation and pigeon abatement, artificial turf at Beaubien Elementary and improved lighting at the Milwaukee Avenue viaduct north of the Jefferson Park Transit Center.

Residents of the 46th Ward voted for projects that seek to increase pedestrian safety by refreshing and repairing crosswalks and count-down timers. They also voted for the redesign of the intersection at Sheridan Rd. and Montrose and Broadway avenues. The ward is also slated to receive new police video cameras in Sheridan Park.

Community members of the 5th Ward gave the OK for a community garden at 2301 E. 71st St. The garden will have 65 plots available at no cost for community members, along with a picnic-like space where residents can gather. They also voted for improved lighting at Metra viaducts located in Hyde Park and South Shore, among other projects.

About $620,000 of the 49th Ward’s capital budget will be spent on street resurfacing. The top three projects in addition to the resurfacing include urgent sidewalks repairs, cobblestone restoration on a stretch of Glenwood Avenue and a pedestrian safety engineering study for Sheridan Road.

Counting The Votes

Hadden said the four wards tallied their votes differently.

In the 49th Ward, a team of ward staff members and interns counted the ballots. The room where the votes were counted had a window for public viewing, she said.

In the 5th Ward, Webb said she was responsible for counting votes, but she said she invited residents to help her.

That’s another way of being transparent,” she said. “I definitely didn’t do it solely on my own.”

Anthony Alfano, director of economic development and business relations in the 45th Ward, said he helped the alderman’s chief of staff tally the first round of votes after early voting ended. On the official voting day, the chief of staff tallied the remaining votes, Alfano said.

It’s not clear how the votes were counted in the 46th Ward, as the office did not return Progress Illinois’ request for comment.

Hadden said participatory budgeting is an open process, and incentives to stuff the ballot box, weight votes or cheat in some other manner are “really low.”

“It’s such an overwhelmingly, positive experience for people that we’ve yet to see ... any indication or incident of fraud or cheating,” she said.

Image: The Publicity Works (CAPTION: Fifth Ward residents turn out to vote in their first Participatory Budgeting election at Gary Comer College Prep on Saturday, May 4. The diverse group of residents were enthusiastic about deciding how 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston should spend up to $1 million of her annual capital improvement budget.

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