Meet the Authors of “Chicago Is Not Broke”

POWR and the West Ridge Community Organization (WRCO) are co-sponsoring a book discussion on Thursday, April 27, at the Northtown Library. Our guests will be the editor and authors of “Chicago Is Not Broke: A Guide to Funding the City We Deserve.”

The book’s chapters deal with issues affecting Chicago’s financial health, and each chapter’s author(s) explores a single topic in depth. Topics covered include TIFs, a public bank, the costs of corruption, and toxic bank deals that force the City to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in debt service payments before a single penny can be spent on City services.

Authors of the book include former alderman Dick Simpson, Hilary Denk, an attorney and a Director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois, 2015 mayoral candidate Amara Enyia, and former reporter and communications consultant Thomas J. Graedel.  Editor Tom Tresser is well-known to Chicagoans as the man who first questioned the costs of staging the 2016 Olympics in Chicago and organized the “No Games Chicago” movement.

Please join us at the Northtown Library on Thursday, April 27, from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. for a lively discussion. You’ll also have an opportunity volunteer to work on some initiatives for improving our own community.

“Chicago Is Not Broke” will be available for purchase for $12.

Take the LEARN Survey on the New Northtown Library!

The LEARN Coalition has just released its community survey, a planning tool that asks West Ridge residents to give the designers, architects, and alderman feedback about what we’d like to see in our new library. It also provides space for respondents to state their own preferences for ideas that might not appear on the survey.  All responses will be submitted online.

Surveys are due on or before March 15.

The LEARN Coalition is the community’s voice in making our new library a reality. LEARN created the petition for the library and secured more than 2,000 signatures. The petition was presented to the alderman and was instrumental in persuading the Library Board that West Ridge residents needed, wanted, and would support a new facility. It’s critical that the community continue to show that support by responding to LEARN’s survey.

Survey results will be presented to the alderman and the community as well as the developers, the designers and architects, and the Library Board.

Participatory Budgeting in 2017

There will be plenty of opportunities to learn about participatory budgeting in 2017.  Supporters of the 2016 referendum petition are committed to making PB a reality in the 50th Ward, whether  by working directly with the alderman, or succeeding in getting a referendum on the 2018 ballot, or ensuring that PB becomes a campaign issue.

The alderman recently supported City legislation transferring $1.3M in property tax revenue to a special fund that will provide legal support for undocumented residents fighting federal government deportation orders. Each ward receives slightly more ($1.32M) in menu money every year.  It begs the question: How can the alderman agree to transfer $1.3M to help the undocumented and not agree to transfer $1M to the control of 50th Ward residents?

In 2017, POWR will sponsor programs explaining PB in depth. Residents will have an opportunity to meet with PB organizers and participants from other wards. We will also hold at least one screening of the documentary Count Me In, first aired on PBS last Fall, about the PB process and how it works in other Chicago wards, including our neighbor, the 49th.

2017 is the year to learn about PB and how it can help residents gain some control over a small portion of public monies. This is especially important in a time when residents see less and less in services while taxes and fees increase at all levels of government. It’s critical that we as citizens educate ourselves about the issues and become more involved in civic life.

Remember: The election cycle begins again in 2018–primaries in March, state elections, including governor, in November–with aldermanic and mayoral candidates campaigning throughout 2018 for the City’s elections in February 2019.

Results of Participatory Budgeting Vote in 36th Ward

Nearly 1,100 residents of the 36th Ward voted in this year’s participatory budgeting process and approved the following projects for funding:

Repaving roads —  $550,000
Steinmez and Bell Park Athletic Facilities – $175,000
Reinberg Playground and Hermosa Traffic Safety 2 – $145,000
Chicago Academy Playground, Blackhawk Basketball Court, and Hermosa Traffic Safety 1  – $140,000
School safety – $50,000

A variety of projects were included throughout the ward, and residents’ priorities were clearly safety and recreational activities for youngsters.  Residents also voted to repair neighborhood streets, choosing to spend 55% of the available menu money to do so.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas noted that voter turnout was 35% higher than last year.

Let’s work toward bringing PB to the 50th!

 

“Count Me In”

I attended yesterday’s advance screening of “Count Me In,” a one-hour documentary about participatory budgeting (PB) that focuses on the PB experience in four Chicago wards; the 5th, 22nd, 27th, and 49th. Three years in the making, we see groups of neighbors learn to work together to identify structural problems or omissions and vote to direct taxpayer monies toward partially or totally resolving them. The learning process–and the costs of funding improvements–become clear as he process unfolds.

The segment on the 29th Ward is especially interesting because Ald. Burnett, who initially refused to consider PB for his ward, finally used the process to involve his community in spending TIF funds–the only instance in which PB has been utilized in this way. Another part of the film details the experience at Sullivan High School, whose principal allowed the students to use the PB process to determine funding for school improvements.

The film showcases both the successes and failures of the process, which is informed and improved by the experiences of PB participants. Two examples stand out. In the first, a single, gerrymandered ward (the 22nd) with small communities of African-Americans and whites and a large Latino community experiences problems with its first PB voting. Not surprisingly, Latino projects were funded for the simple reason that there were more voters in that section of the ward choosing projects.  All three communities had to come together to determine ways to ensure that projects were funded more fairly in the future.

On the south side, we witness the disappointment of one resident whose proposal for a community garden was accepted by voters but who learned to his dismay that the funding agency refused to grant financing because there was an unsuccessful community garden three blocks from his proposed site. Securing PB funding meant going through yet another process of proving the need for his site, or, as he saw it, making him responsible for the failed garden. Citizens working together came up with a solution.

The film’s producer/director, Ines Sommer, who lives in Rogers Park, was on hand for a panel discussion afterwards, along with the 49th Ward’s PB liaison Cecelia Sanchez, Sarah Lisy, former head of the 49th Ward Leadership Team, Chad Addams, Sullivan’s principal, and Ald. Joe Moore.

The film will be broadcast on PBS this Thursday, November 3, at 8:00 p.m. on WTTW Channel 11.

Learn more about the film itself at its Web site.

Participatory Budgeting Coming to 41st Ward

Ald. Anthony Napolitano has announced that he is instituting Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the 41st ward, giving his constituents the opportunity to vote on how $1 million in public monies will be spent. The 41st thus joins other progressive wards in allowing residents to participate in ward budgeting decisions, a sorry contrast to the 50th, where Ald. Silverstein insists on keeping the public out of monetary matters.

As regular readers of this space know, the push to bring PB to the 50th continues. The coming year will see a series of events to introduce 50th Ward residents to PB, and we will be relaunching the petition to put an advisory referendum on the ballot for 2019. We also intend to make PB an issue in the coming aldermanic race. It’s time for Silverstein to  make PB a reality in the 50th Ward.

Congratulations to residents of the 41st! A progressive, involved, pro-active alderman can accomplish great things by working with the community.

Residents of the 50th can only watch as other wards pass us by on the way to the future.

Free Film Screening About Participatory Budgeting in the 49th Ward

Alderman Joe Moore is hosting a free screening of a  PBS documentary that features the 49th Ward’s participatory budgeting process. The screening is  Sunday, October 30, from 2:00-3:30 p.m. at the New 400 Theater, 6746 North Sheridan Road. There will be a panel discussion about PB afterwards.

The film, “Count Me In,” was directed and produced by Ines Sommer; she will be one of the four panel participants, along with Cecelia Salinas, the 49th Ward’s PB liaison; Sarah Lisy, former Chair of the 49th Ward’s PB Leadership Team; and Chad Adams, principal of Sullivan High School, where the first student-led PB process took place.

To quote Ald. Moore, “Participatory budgeting is one answer to the question, how do you get citizens, who have become cynical about politics and frustrated with voting, involved in the decision-making process about what government does and how things get done?

The film traces the growth of Participatory Budgeting from its US. beginning in the 49th Ward and shows residents pitching ideas for a variety of projects, including street repairs, bike lanes and community gardens. Projects get researched, proposals crafted, and at the end, the entire community is invited to vote.

“Count Me In” explores the ups and downs of this new tool, offering an engaging, unvarnished look at what it will take to revitalize democracy from the ground up, not just in Chicago, but across the nation.”

Moore described PB as “a process that is changing how we talk about democracy.”

It’s a conversation that needs to continue in the 50th Ward.

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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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.

PB Petition Not on November Ballot

The petition for an advisory referendum to bring participatory budgeting to the 50th Ward did not get the required number of signatures to appear on November’s ballot. The Chicago Board of Elections officially ruled the petition off the ballot yesterday.

We will therefore launch a new petition drive in Spring 2017 to ensure that we make the ballot for the 2019 municipal elections.

The alderman’s claims of neutrality on this issue proved false. A ward resident who was clearly acting as aldermanic surrogate challenged the petition; he was represented by the same lawyer who represented the  objectors to Silverstein’s opponents’ signatures in last year’s aldermanic elections. She doesn’t  fool anybody with these shenanigans, but at least it will cost her some money.

We obtained 466 signatures, about 52% of the total we needed (893). The Electoral Board itself would have disqualified the petition for that reason. But the alderman wanted to be sure the petition would die, so two objections were raised: (1) We did not obtain enough signatures; and (2) “in the alternative,” the petition’s question could not be understood because it was ungrammatical and too long. The “alternative” objection–in case the Board was inclined to break its own rules and allow us on the ballot–was just insurance and easily dismissed. But this is what some politicians pay lawyers to do to keep the citizenry from having an ongoing voice in government.

So much that is positive emerged from this petition drive that I hardly know where to begin the good news:

  • A committed core of volunteers coalesced around this issue and is ready to resume work on next year’s campaign
  • The CBOE, by accepting Silverstein’s lawyer’s argument, has made our task easier–it’s clear now that we need 8% of voters in the ward, not in each precinct
  • In just four short weeks, volunteer petition circulators did a tremendous job, pulling in almost 125 signatures per week–working part-time during a hot and humid Chicago summer for a cause in which they believe
  • We now know firsthand how the process works–as well as how it can be stopped
  • PB is an issue that won’t go away, and neither will the activist citizens who are working on this and many other issues throughout the 50th Ward
  • If the alderman continues to refuse to introduce PB to the ward, it will be a major campaign issue in the 2019 aldermanic race

The PB Steering Committee thanks everyone who supported the drive to bring participatory budgeting to our ward.  Special appreciation goes to our organizers and petition circulators. And to those who signed–fully understanding the issue and the question as stated on the petition–thank you!

The alderman apparently thinks her constituents are too stupid to understand what they’re doing in asking for a say in spending the menu money. Rumors were spread in the immigrant community, for example, that the petition was an attack on the alderman. If you’ve lived under a repressive government, you don’t want to do anything to call attention to yourself, so this kind of whispering campaign works–once. Among another group of residents, a refusal to sign was often accompanied by the statement that we shouldn’t take “her” money away, but pressure her to spend it differently. Her money?

Residents of the 50th Ward are mobilizing around a host of issues that they understand and care about. PB is just one of them.

Silverstein can get on board, or be left behind. But she can’t stop the train.