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.















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