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PB CLE stages community event at ThirdSpace Action Lab

PHOTO BY BRUCE CHECEFSKY

Sunday, May 15, 2022; Participatory Budgeting in Action event, ThirdSpace Action Lab, 1464 E. 105th Street: Laylah Allen, Chief Executive Officer of The Missing Link, COPE Inc., and David Van Horn, a community artist and organizer for Art Block, participate in this effort to have citizens help determine how a portion of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars should be spent in Cleveland.

PB CLE stages community event at ThirdSpace Action Lab

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, June 2022)                            On a warm Sunday afternoon, dozens of residents gathered outside the ThirdSpace Action Lab in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland to participate in a mock exercise in participatory budgeting sponsored by organizers of Participatory Budgeting Cleveland (PB CLE). PB CLE is asking for $30.8 million from the $512 million in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds received by the City of Cleveland. The amount $30.8 was chosen to reflect the 30.8% of Cleveland’s population whose household incomes fall below the poverty line.

     Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a form of citizen participation through which community members decide how to allocate a portion of a public budget by identifying and prioritizing public spending projects.

     Evelyn Burnett and Seth Beattie co-founded ThirdSpace Action Lab as a grassroots research and design cooperative. The organization hosts community workshops in a commercial building commissioned in 1963 by nine African American doctors who funded community practice after being denied opportunities by Cleveland hospitals. The space is also home to Chocolate Cities Cleveland, a collective that shares stories of the African American culture created on the East Side.

     A few days before the PB CLE event, Mayor Justin Bibb released a Rescue & Transformation Plan with ten priorities to maximize ARPA and other federal funds. Civic Participation was on the list. His plan includes a fund that would transfer the distribution of money to Cleveland’s 17 wards at the hyper-local level in partnership with the City Council. 

     PB CLE released a similar plan back in March. The Participatory Budgeting Cleveland: 2022 Action Plan divides the $30.8 million into 17 smaller funds based on the percent of Cleveland’s population living in poverty. For example, Ward 5, which has the highest poverty rate at 9.93%, would get $3.06M, while Ward 17, with poverty of 3.64%, would receive $1.12M. A second plan option splits $30.8 million into 17 smaller funds, with each ward getting the same amount.

     Participants in the mock exercise received a makeshift passport, after which they visited three stations and responded to questions posed by PB CLE. The questions included places designated as locations for idea generation and how to encourage people of diverse backgrounds and identifies to participate. One of the stations was set up just for ideas on how to spend the money.

     “I would like to see more financial support for mental health,” said Natalie Bryan, Specialty Services Counselor at Stella Maris, a drug and alcohol treatment facility. “We also need to utilize our green spaces and create urban farms.”

     Other suggestions included creating public restrooms for those experiencing homelessness, community work ethic programs, using abandoned schools and houses for new shelters, home repair grants, bicycle safety lanes, city-sponsored community events, replacing missing and damaged street curbs, and more police presence.

     David Van Horn and Christina Ermidis, residents of the St. Clair Superior neighborhood, are activists working with people to build community vegetable gardens and bring cultural activities across Cleveland. Ermidis worries about carrying out civic projects, noting the heavy workload involved in working with communities and the local Community Development Corporations. Van Horn wants more community events and improved bicycle safety. As a member of Bike Cleveland, an advocacy organization for safe streets, he does free pop-up arts and crafts events using his bike as transportation. He does pop-up events at Rockefeller Park every Saturday through the fall.

     Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer, elected to the city council after her historic defeat of 16-year former Councilman Anthony Brancatelli, was at the PB CLE meeting to promote her Ward 12 Transition Plan released in January. The plan includes lead-safe housing laws, investment in ambulance repairs, support for small and minority-owned businesses, and investment in community building participatory budgeting.

     “I am excited to support the PB CLE process. The relationship between Clevelanders and our local government is broke,” said Maurer. “Residents don’t trust local government. They are not voting in our elections. We need a way to change that narrative and bring people back in. Participatory budgeting gives power back to the people.”

     Critics of participatory budgeting argue that citizens are not qualified to make meaningful proposals. Others suggest that PB undermines representative democracy and that elected political officials abdicate their responsibility, and when budgets are tight, the cost-benefit ratio is questionable. The city council or the mayor can veto the final proposals, making the process appear tenuous and unreliable.

     In Chicago, all 50 Wards and their aldermen get $1.32 million a year for infrastructure projects, such as streets, sidewalks, and lighting. Nine aldermen used participatory budgeting to distribute the money in 2017. Supporters of participatory budgeting say it takes politics out of government spending. PB allows residents to ask for fixes in neighborhoods. While the process breeds civic engagement, people asked for murals, parks, or flower beds, reported WBEZ Chicago.

     “I do not support it,” said City Council President Blaine Griffin in an email to the Plain Press about the PB CLE proposal. “I think it is a very noble concept. But I do not see how to do this fairly and equitably. There will most certainly be people who will not be able to participate.”

     Blaine added, “So, how is this ‘Participatory Budgeting’ when there is no way for EVERYONE, including single mothers working two jobs, seniors, people who cannot go to meetings, and people who do not publicly express their concerns and others to participate. I have concerns about inclusiveness and process, not the theory or concept.”

     Molly Martin, a member of PB CLE, said her organization is asking the city council and the mayor to consider several ways of spending the money but not on any one thing. She would like to see residents decide for their communities. While Martin has not spoken directly to Council President Griffin, the City Council President has allowed her organization to present its ideas.

     “Council President Griffin has given us the platform to talk about what residents want,” she said. “We hope that means he is open to listening to the mayor and other city council members.”

     Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell and Larry Gardner, the host of an internet radio show, The Headline Eye on WNRV 108.1, talked about the PB CLE proposal while people lined up for free sandwiches and cold drinks in a room next to them. The atmosphere was festive; excitement filled the air. The group was ready to vote on their proposals.

     “We need to look at the federal poverty indicators when talking about participatory budgeting,” said Conwell. “Poverty is not equal across the city, with Ward 5 and Ward 17 not economically the same. We need to make sure money goes where it is needed.”

     Gardner, who also works with New Voices for Reproductive Justice, which promotes the complete health and well-being of black women, girls, and gender-expansive people, agreed.

     “I want to make sure we advocate for Civil Rights for the transgender and LGBTQIA+ community and support neighborhood justice for African Americans,” he said. 

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