Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Participatory budgeting in Massachusetts as a path to public empowerment

Last month, Chicago Alderman Joe Moore and representatives from the Participatory Budgeting Project spoke in Boston, Cambridge and Springfield, Massachusetts, to raise awareness of participatory budgeting and to give "real-life" examples of its success in funding discretionary spending in Moore's 49th Ward.

Chicago aldermen get a certain amount of money in the city's budget each year to spend on ward betterment projects. Moore described how prior to participatory budgeting, he rather arbitrarily distributed the money on a small range of projects, mostly public lighting and street or sidewalk repair. Now that his constituents vote on which projects to fund, that money has been used on more varied projects, including public art and community gardens. And, as a politician, he was quick to point out that this past election, not only was he re-elected by a wide margin, but other pro-participatory budgeting aldermen have also been elected or re-elected as more city residents ask why this program isn't part of their ward discretionary spending process.

The big question in Boston is where the money would come from, since city council members don't receive city money for district improvements. However, there are some funds coming into Boston's budget from private developers who've built on leased city land, and this money, if it stays in district, could be a long-term and substantial source of community betterment funds.

The Boston talk also featured a presentation by budgeting activists from Lawrence, Massachusetts, which doesn't yet have participatory budgeting but has used the city's budget process as a way of educating and involving community members in local decisionmaking.

The Springfield, Massachusetts, presentation was videotaped, and featured Moore; Gianpaolo Baiocchi of the Participatory Budgeting process and Brown University; José Tosado, Springfield City Council President; David Panagore, City of Hartford Chief Operations Officer; Michaelann Bewsee, Arise for Social Justice Executive Director; and Ayanna Crawford, education consultant. The talk was sponsored by the Springfield Institute.

Here's the video from Springfield:

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