Greensboro council to explore participatory budgeting

by Eric Ginsburg

While it may not be at the top of its agenda, the Greensboro City Council will consider implementing a participatory budgeting process to allow citizens more control over a portion of the city’s annual budget. Council members began budget discussions on Jan 28, and though they agreed participatory budgeting was still at least a year away, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said the budget workshops in the next few months should include a lengthy discussion on how to incorporate the more directly democratic process in the future.

A handful of council members have expressed their support for looking at how the city could adopt the process that is used by more than 1,200 cities worldwide, including zones of Chicago and New York City, and Johnson said no council members have been adamantly opposed to the concept.

“It appeals to me because it is very inclusive and I think people in various communities know better what their needs are than folks who sit in government and don’t necessarily live in those communities,” Johnson said. “I think it’s an exciting idea. I’ve met with a number of people who are proponents.”

A dedicated group of residents, now under the name Participatory Budgeting Greensboro, received a starting push from the Fund for Democratic Communities over a year and a half ago, presenting at a city council meeting and bringing the idea to more than 300 people at various community meetings. Mayor Robbie Perkins, Johnson, Jim Kee, Nancy Hoffmann and Marikay Abuzuaiter sat down with Participatory Budgeting Greensboro at two separate meetings last month. Some council members and organizers said they would like to see a briefing of council with a presentation by coordinators from Chicago or New York’s processes, but Perkins said he didn’t think that was necessary.

‘The nice thing about this is it’s not going to be top down. It is good for us to come together in this way and to be more democratic. It provides a really good example of people getting involved and caring about their community and not leaving it to someone else to do.’

“” former city council candidate

“I don’t think you need to define what it is because I think we all understand it,” he said. “I think it’s something we need to consider. You’d like to think it could move faster but at this point I think council has all it can handle.”

Perkins said that snow was coming into the War Memorial Auditorium “” just another sign of the need for the downtown performing arts center “” and between it, Duke Energy’s tree trimming and the current budget deficit, council has its hands full.

Participatory budgeting proponents such as acting president Vincent Russell are asking the city to allocate 1 percent of its budget “” about $4.5 million “” for the process. The concept would allow residents to generate proposals for ways they would like to see the money spent in their communities and after organizers and city staff figured out specific details, feasibility and cost, residents would vote directly on the proposals.

Russell said Participatory Budgeting Greensboro is hoping at least two council members will be able to travel to Chicago with local advocates in May for a conference coinciding with the city’s participatory budgeting decisionmaking process.

Russell, who is serving a 90-day term as the group’s president, said it would be the first time the process was established by a grassroots campaign in the country and that participatory budgeting covered an entire city rather than a district or ward.

“I think for a lot of people in city government and city staff this sounds like a very different idea and it sounds complicated although it’s really quite simple,” he said. “I just like the idea of really getting citizen’s engaged in making the city a better place and having a direct and meaningful impact in that.”

Russell said that of the council members the group has met with recently, Hoffmann and Abuzuaiter have been the strongest supporters.

Abuzuaiter, who said it was a “wonderful” idea, adding that there has been some difficulty selling the concept because people assume the money would need to be reallocated from existing city spending and could hurt services.

“My personal opinion is that there is already money there for different things in parks and rec, and road improvement,” she said. “We’ve been trying to rework the mindset on that.

Those things are already prioritized but participatory budgeting would see which is most needed in a district. Staff has been open to the idea. We’re just trying to work out all the particulars.”

Ideally, Abuzuaiter said she would like to see $1 million allocated for each of the city’s five council districts.

She said rough proposals generated so far line up with the kinds of capital projects the city is already looking at such as road improvements, community gardens or parks.

District 5 Councilman Tony Wilkins, who replaced Trudy Wade last month, said he hasn’t been briefed on participatory budgeting yet, but project organizer and UNCG communications professor Spoma Jovanovic said it is on their to-do list. Jovanovic said the possibilities for how projects would be selected are still open but would likely follow council districts or some other geographical divisions to allow priorities to be decided locally.

After Participatory Budgeting Greensboro met with hundreds of residents and did a mock process, Jovanovic and a graduate student went through the results to be able to summarize what interested people and what they thought about the process. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, she said, but the dry runs were done for specific demographic groups who often suggested projects pertaining to their demographic, while a citywide model would allow for more democratic discussions and decision-making she said.

“It appeals to people who may be frustrated at not being able to influence or get some of the things they want,” Jovanovic said. “I think the projects kind of that were identified were actually pretty consistent with city priorities.”

Jovanovic said if the process is successfully designed to be accessible, significant and accountable it could build social trust and collaboration between residents and city government. Participatory budgeting could draw younger residents into the process, she said, and advocate Wayne Abraham said some places even let young people under 18 vote.

“The nice thing about this is it’s not going to be top down,” said Abraham, who has served on the human relations commission and ran for city council in 2011. “It is good for us to come together in this way and to be more democratic. It provides a really good example of people getting involved and caring about their community and not leaving it to someone else to do.”