Monthly Archives: September 2016

WRPCO Forum Tonight: Citizen Involvement in Basic Democratic Processes

I hope you plan to attend tonight’s WRPCO-sponsored forum “Are we citizens getting too much democracy?” at a 7 p.m. in the Community Room at Devon Bank, lower level.

Featured presentations include the lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Elections, the Independent Map Amendment in Illinois, the Fair Elections Ordinance in Chicago, the proposed LaSalle Street Transaction Tax, the status of the movement for an elected school board in Chicago, and participatory budgeting in the 50th Ward.

Instead of bringing handouts to the meeting, I’m posting links to Web sites and articles about participatory budgeting so that you can browse at leisure, downloading only what you find useful to understanding and—as I hope—
supporting the effort to make PB part of  civic engagement in the 50th Ward.

As you probably know, PB is a worldwide movement that began in Brazil. It’s now in widespread use across the United States. The following sites are useful in understanding its history:

Paricipatory Budgeting
[This 2007 report from the World Bank , part of its Public Sector Governance and Accountability series, describes the PB experience in Asia and Europe as well as Latin America and the U.S., but its academic jargon can be tough to slog through; still, the pros and cons and difficulties are well-covered)

Open Budget, Open Process: A Short History of Participatory Budgeting in the US
[An excellent July 2013 report from the Sunlight Foundation describing the U.S. history of PB]

History of the Participatory Budgeting Project
[West site for the Participatory Budgeting Project, which is advising the PB50 Steering Committee]

For information on PB’s history in Chicago, check these sites.

PB Chicago
[PB Chicago is part of the UIC College of Urban Planning & Public Affairs’ Great Cities Institute; its Neighborhood Initiatives Director, Thea Crum, has met with and been very helpful to the PB50 Steering Committee]

PB in Chicago’s 49th Ward
[Ald. Joe Moore of the 49th Ward brought PB to Chicago; his ward’s PB organization has assisted PB50 in our work]

Is Participatory Budgeting Real Democracy?
[A fair and honest article about participatory budgeting from Next City, a nonprofit whose mission is “to inspire social, economic, and environmental change in cities….”

The Steering Committee recently learned that Ald. Stone did not use his menu money during his last couple of years in office. Therefore, the alderman may have had more money when she was elected in 2011, although the financial records of menu money spending from 2011-2015 don’t reflect that. When Rahm Emanuel became mayor in 2011, he ordered an audit of the menu money program, discovered that aldermen were carrying funds from year to year, and stopped the practice.

Where does PB50 go from here? We have several objectives.

First, we will be asking the alderman to implement PB in the 50th Ward in 2017. She has recently indicated a willingness to consider using menu money to fund the library feasibility study, and that ‘s a good sign that she realizes the need to spend the money on more than potholes. [As has been pointed out to the Steering Committee by PB Project officials, potholes are a City responsibility and menu money was never intended for that use.] The next aldermanic election is in early 2019, and PB will be an issue. The alderman can either claim credit for instituting it, or explain to voters why she has not.

Second, in 2017 PB50 will begin a series of meetings designed to educate more residents about the benefits and responsibilities of using PB. We are arranging to have PB materials translated into other languages (Spanish and Chinese materials already exist, but not Urdu or Arabic, for example). We and our coalition partners will be holding a series of educational workshops in various locations around the 50th Ward  where native speakers will address PB in various languages so that our diverse community can learn about the issue and become involved in moving PB50 forward.

Third, if by 2018 PB is not in place in the 50th Ward, we will once again launch a petition drive, this time utilizing the full 90 days provided by statute to get the signatures needed to secure a place on the ballot.  PB50 circulators were able to gather nearly 125 signatures per week in the four weeks of this year’s drive; at that rate, in 90 days we will exceed the number needed to withstand any challenges and will  place a referendum on the 2018 ballot. Although it will be advisory, it will provide a gauge to measure the community’s support for having a say in how menu money is spent.

My own Plan B has always been to introduce an ordinance to the full City Council making PB the law in Chicago. That remains a distinct possibility, particularly since more aldermen have indicated to the PB Project that they want to introduce PB to their constituents. Personally, I think it could be an advantage in the coming election if our own alderman were willing to do this.

More citizen involvement in government at every level is necessary if we are to find our way out of the morass of high taxes, lost services, and indifference by our well-paid political class to the plight of ordinary citizens. Illinois is losing residents because of its high taxes and inhospitable business climate. Business leaders say they hate the culture of corruption, but if they don’t pay they can’t play. Citizens are increasingly shut out of the process except on election day.

Two facts stand out for me:

The City of Chicago must pay $860M dollars in interest on its borrowings before it can spend one cent on City services. The second graph in this article is particularly interesting, demonstrating that, of the nine largest cities in the US, Chicago pays far higher interest rates than any other City. Remember who approves those rates when you go to the polls.

PB would affect only $1M of the alderman’s $1.32M menu money.  There’s still enough left for aldermanic priorities.

It’s time for concerned citizens to take at least a small part in deciding how tax dollars are spent. PB is the first step in empowering the average citizen.

Let’s take it.















This Extraordinary Moment

We are living at an extraordinary moment in American history.

Our country—a work in progress in the best of times—is struggling to define itself. What does America stand for? What does it mean to be an American? How should their government interact with ordinary Americans? Are taxes killing the working and middle classes? Are the rich to blame for all our problems? Is everyone paying a fair share of the burden?  How do we create a more just society? How large a role should citizens play in determining public policy?

It’s a presidential election year, and the candidates are notable as much for their flaws as their achievements. One promises to change an establishment she’s helped lead for more than thirty years. The other promises to change an establishment that wants no part of him. Are the choices really the status quo or chaos?  Or is the excessive media focus on ultimately trivial mistakes and “gotcha” moments warping our perceptions?

At the local level, we find far too many candidates running unopposed, not because they are extraordinary public servants, but because they have access to the obscene amounts of money required to run for public office, money that is too often donated by outside interests that don’t know or care about local issues but do know and care about who’s in position to influence government spending and no-bid contracts.

Citizens are more than disengaged from civic involvement. They are openly alienated and apathetic. No matter what choice is made at the ballot box, the system never changes. Greed and corruption have all but destroyed our political system and our communities. Venal, self-serving politicians and their political gurus have so sliced and diced the electorate into special interest groups that it’s no longer possible to speak of a common good. The values Americans used to share have largely disappeared.

It’s clear that a disgusted citizenry is not merely demanding change, but determined to get it, willing to work for it, beginning to organize to make it a reality. This time, the ordinary people who pay the bills won’t agree to remain silent.

It probably won’t happen with this election cycle, although there will be some changes. The next election—in Chicago, that’s only two years away—will produce more. Citizens are demanding term limits for officeholders, a voice in spending, a shift in our priorities, and massive change in public policies that produce no appreciable benefit for ordinary folks. They want an end to lying politicians who cook the books and draw the maps that keep them in power, all the while looking out for themselves first.

Change is coming. You can sense it. You can feel it. The next time you attend a meeting called by a local officeholder who replies in generalities to precisely-worded questions, look around at the faces of the audience. Where once there was resignation, there is now anger, and just beyond that, an awakening—and a convert—to the cause of citizen empowerment.

Change is scary, but it’s also exciting. We aren’t quite sure what’s coming, but we are certain that what we’ve had is no longer what we want. It will take time, but the costs of doing nothing are no longer acceptable. The people must seize this moment, not wait for the next one. Too much is at stake.

It’s an extraordinary time to be a part of this great American experiment in self-government.