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ENGAGING DEBATE

by Jeff Sykes

Political divide evident in participatory budgeting discussion

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

An ideological two-step was on display last week as the more conservative elements of the Greensboro City Council, worried about costs and an impending budget shortfall next year, pushed back against a progressive measure that would give citizens control over about $500,000 in neighborhood spending.

The plan, known as Participatory Budgeting, ultimately passed on a close 5-4 vote, with Councilwoman Nancy Hoffman straying from the confines of the pro-business coalition to throw her vote in with the often more community oriented coalition. Hoffman joined district representatives Sharon Hightower and Jamal Fox, along with at-large council members Yvonne Johnson and Marikay Abuzuaiter, to approve a resolution authorizing the city to spend $100,000 to bring the plan into reality.

In essence, participatory budgeting sets aside $100,000 in the first year to be used in setting up the project. Supporters claim they can raise another $100,000 in matching funds to cover the planning costs. Once established, participatory budgeting will control $500,000 of the city’s total budget of $470 million.

It was the startup costs, plus the idea of setting aside future budget dollars in an inflexible budget environment, that caused some council members to object at length to the proposal. Mayor Nancy Vaughan, along with council members Mike Barber, Zack Matheny and Tony Wilkins voted against the proposal.

Supporters of the project were undeterred by their concerns.

“The more I know, the more I realize this will be an excellent program for the City of Greensboro,” said Wayne Abraham, a supporter of participatory budgeting who spoke before the council on Oct. 7. “What could be better than the citizens of Greensboro becoming involved in their own government and helping to decide how to spend one-tenth of one percent of their own money? I don’t think that’s a whole lot for the city to consider allowing its citizens to decide.”

Abraham said he had worked with project supporters for a couple of years to explain the idea to the public. First introduced in 2011, the city council established a study committee in late 2013. That committee recommended the process to the full city council, which was asked to consider a resolution in support of the idea. Project supporters held a mock participatory budgeting session at UNC-Greensboro as part of their effort to build awareness.

Project supporter Vincent Russell said he had worked for three years to make the idea a reality in Greensboro. Russell told council that he’s traveled to New York, Chicago and Oakland to study how other cities have implemented the process. About 30 community outreach events have been held in Greensboro, Russell said. Follow-up surveys showed more than 85 percent support for the idea.

Russell expressed the core of the idea, that expanding citizen involvement in the mechanics of government was good for democracy.

“I understand that some council members may have reservations about participatory budgeting because of their personal views about how our democracy is supposed to work,” Russell said. “That view is based on electing representatives to carry out the people’s business. Others have a broader view of democracy.

“We understand that democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate. Democracy means listening to everyone’s voices and fostering a sense of community.”

Russell added that this view of expanded citizen involvement fit with the city’s spirit, as evidenced by the Sit In Movement and the Truth and Reconciliation process.

Such broad appeal to the progressive sensibility of many Greensboro residents may have been the rhetorical capstone to easy approval in a more robust financial environment. But given the city’s reluctance to raise taxes in the past several years, and increasing state pressure on city revenue sources, there was significant pushback against the idea.

Tony Wilkins, the archconservative on the council, lead off with an appeal to basic financial considerations.

“There are some of us that think it’s fairly bizarre that you are proposing to give a firm in New York $200,000 to tell us how to spend $500,000,” Wilkins said. “From the outside, you’ve got to admit that’s a little bizarre.”

Wilkins would reiterate several times that he believed staff could research the process on Google in order to avoid the startup investment. He asked if project backers had looked into using volunteers or local firms to administer the project.

UNCG Professor Spoma Jovanovic, one of the eight people who came to council in support of the proposal, said that some of the startup costs would go to promotional materials, but that there was a need to have an expert guide the initial process. Part of the $200,000 in startup costs would pay for consulting from the Participatory Budgeting Project, an organization based in New York City that has promoted the concept across the country.

“Much like you need an architect to design a building, we need someone to help design this process,” Jovanovic said. “However, absolutely, we want to take advantage of, and use local people, to do the bulk of the work.”

With Wilkins momentarily held at bay, Mayor Vaughan let the rest of council ask questions. Most concerns related to the actual identification, ranking and selection of projects in each district. Russell said that in Vallejo, California, one of the first cities in the country to implement the idea, citizens identified community gardens, bike lanes and neighborhood murals as choice projects. In the initial phase citizens generated 900 project ideas, which steering committees narrowed down to 12 final choices, Russell said.

“Working together they would flesh out the details of each project, whatever they desire, and work with city staff to determine costs, and to determine whether it was feasible,” Russell said.

Council member Matheny expressed strong opposition to the plan, both from a fiscal perspective and what he said was a lack of support in the community. Matheny asked Abraham how they could justify cutting existing projects to implement something new?

“I think it’s a great educational process for citizens to understand that if they get A they may not have B,” Abraham said. “But at least they know and they are making that decision.”

Matheny reiterated that he’d heard very little from his constituents about the plan. Wilkins said he asked for feedback on Facebook and received 70 comments, all opposed to the idea. This lead to a spirited exchange between Wilkins and Jovanovic. Wilkins chided her for laughing at his position that spending money on an out of state firm to teach city residents how to spend money was “bizarre.”

“I think it’s a misframing of the entire thing,” Jovanovic said. “There is money that needs to be spent on the process. Could we do it without them? It’s certainly possible, but we would pay a lot more in terms of mistakes and those things.”

Council member Abuzuaiter expressed strong support for the concept, citing its goal to increase citizen participation in government decisionmaking.

“If people would really read what it’s about and not automatically bash it … it’s exactly what it says “” the community is going to participate,” Abuzuaiter said. “I’m really not sure what is plainer than that. It educates the public so maybe we will have more than three people at district budget meetings.”

Just before the council voted by a slim margin to approve the measure, Yvonne Johnson, who shepherded the proposal from its inception, spoke clearly about her passion for the idea. Greensboro would become the first city in the southeast to put participatory budgeting in place, she said.

“Greensboro has always been a place that is sort of a trailblazer,” Johnson said. “It always kind of did something first that was different. Sometimes it can be a disaster, but I don’t think this will be a disaster. I think it will be great. I think more people will participate in making those decisions. What that leads to is more young people getting excited about the place they live.” !

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