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Expanding participatory budgeting

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Many Chicagoans involved in “participatory budgeting” in four Chicago wards this year “want to see the program expand,” Joel Handley reports [2] in the final installment of a series in In These Times.

In the 5th Ward, the most popular choices of residents voting on how to spend aldermanic “menu money” included beautification projects like a community garden on 71st Street (the top vote-getter) and a community mural, along with public safety projects like streetlight repairs.

But “the inadequacy of the ward’s menu money to fix the ward’s most demanding problems — housing foreclosures, school closures and gun violence” — could be a reason that turnout wasn’t higher in the 5th Ward, according to Handley.

“Some are eyeing the public schools budget or the entire city budget” as areas where participatory budgeting could play a role.

In Porto Alegro, Brazil, where PB was invented in the late 1980s, the process governed “much of the city’s budget,” and residents voted to build affordable housing, pave roads, build schools and deliver clean drinking water.  In a poor district of Mexico City, residents reclaimed public lands, distributed food and gas to poor residents, and slashed the salaries of elected officials.

South Shore resident Elliot El-Amin thinks PB should be brought to bear on Mayor Emanuel’s $50 million private fund for anti-violence programs.

“At the press conference he had announcing this, the mayor only mentioned youth basketball leagues,” El-Amin said.  “If that’s all you can come up with, with $50 million dollars, I think somebody’s got  lot more money than they’ve got ideas.”

Next year, several more wards are expected to introduce the process.  Last year the first citywide participatory budgeting program in the U.S. was initiated by Vallejo, California, a Bay Area city of 116,000 people.