PHOTO BY BRUCE CHECEFSKY
Wednesday, November 2, 2022, Happy Dog, W. 58th and Detroit Avenue: Kenny Medrano, Former Director, Participatory Budgeting, District 26, New York City, explains the merits of participatory budgeting. The City Club joined with Participatory Budgeting Cleveland (PB CLE) to host a panel discussion on participatory budgeting.
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, December 2022) Several dozen people packed into the Happy Dog on Detroit Avenue in the Gordon Square District on November 2nd for the City Club of Cleveland panel on participatory budgeting (PB CLE). The atmosphere was festive and optimistic. Erika Anthony, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Cleveland VOTES, hosted the panel discussion.
Panelists included Stephanie D. Howse, Ward 7 Councilwoman, Cleveland City Council; Michelle B. Jackson, Freelance Writer and Community Organizer, Participatory Budgeting CLE; and Kenny Medrano, Former Director, Participatory Budgeting, District 26, New York City.
A participatory budget (PB) is an innovative policy-making tool involving citizens in spending municipal funds. Participatory institutions aim to enhance governance, information sharing, and the responsiveness of political agents to citizens, leading to fiscal accountability and efficiency.
PB started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, as an anti-poverty measure that helped reduce child mortality. Since then, PB has spread to over 7,000 cities worldwide and has been used to decide budgets from states, counties, cities, housing authorities, schools, and other institutions. The New York Times calls PB revolutionary civics in action by deepening democracy, building stronger communities, and creating a more equitable distribution of public resources.
Although PB holds a great deal of promise, there are limitations to the process, including limited participation of the marginalized. Some residents, especially the very poor, find participation difficult given the time and resource commitments required. PB also requires a strong commitment from the local government, and without support, expectations set by the PB process are often not met, according to some experts.
Earlier this year, Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer, elected to City Council after her historic defeat of 16-year former Councilman Anthony Brancatelli, expressed her support of the PB CLE. Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin said it was a noble concept but would vote against it.
“I do not see how to do this fairly and equitably. There will most certainly be people who will not be able to participate,” said Griffin back in June 2022. “I have concerns about inclusiveness and process, not the theory or concept.”
Erika Anthony opened the conversation by asking the panelists to describe what motivates them to stay active in the community. Michelle B. Jackson said working for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 and his reelection campaign in 2012 brought her closer to experiencing municipal politics. The experience eventually led her to become more civic-minded and involved.
“Democracy is not free,” said Jackson. “I want to see the City of Cleveland do better. We can elevate each other through civic engagement.”
Medrano cited his experience in New York City and Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a director and volunteer working with PB as a motivating factor to stay involved with local politics. New York City Council eventually hired him to facilitate the program after serving as a volunteer. It gave him a unique opportunity to experience civic engagement firsthand.
“I was a constituent liaison before becoming director of budgeting,” said Medrano. “PB was my introduction to civic engagement. I credit the experience with PB for opening the door to working with communities.”
Howse served on the Cleveland City Council from 2008 to 2014 and represented District 11 of the Ohio House of Representatives from 2015 to 2021 before being reelected to City Council last year. She grew up in a civic-minded home, where her mother served as president of the local street block club and precinct committee captain. It gave the experienced councilwoman plenty of opportunities to interact with the community at a young age.
“I have early memories of handing out political fliers and candidate election materials at age six,” she said. “Politics is fun.”
Howse introduced legislation for participatory budgeting while in the Ohio House. She advocated for $1 million per house district, and with 99 house districts in Ohio, her proposal topped nearly $100 million. It went nowhere.
“Our government system is not organized for everyday people. We need new ideas and concepts to better our democracy,” she said. “The worst we could do is mess up some money, and we just did that.”
Howse noted that Cleveland is still the poorest district in the state, and without help from people in the city to change the trajectory through proposals like PB CLE, change will not happen. Medrano sees the participatory budgeting process as public money, and the public should determine how it gets spent. Jackson encouraged the audience and listeners to check their website at pbcle.com to endorse the program.
“We want to make it easier for City Council members to support us,” said Jackson. “We have to show them that we have been to every corner of the city and that people are saying they want this.”
Audience questions and comments included a need to provide equity and transparency to the process with measurable results and whether to use the money for past-due projects. Environmental and climate justice was suggested as an area to explore with PB CLE, in combination with state and federal funding, as a priority for spending. Howse said people must ask for it.
“Is this what people want? Until we go through the process, we will not know,” she replied.
Mayor Bibb released a Rescue & Transformation Plan in May 2022, which included ten priorities to maximize the America Rescue Plan & Recovery Act (ARPA) and other federal funds coming to the City of Cleveland. Included in the plan were efforts to stabilize the budget and close the digital divide, violence prevention, public safety, lead-safe priorities, and arts & neighborhood amenities, among other investments. Bibb announced the creation of a new Center for Economic Recovery, with a strategic policy team that will engage with Cleveland City Council to shape and evaluate ideas for ARPA-funded projects that address urgent challenges. There was no mention of participatory budgeting or the PB CLE proposal.
A few weeks later, Cleveland City Council President Griffin unveiled plans to spend $53 million of ARPA funds for home repairs, housing assistance, crime prevention and response. His rationale was to allocate money to help the entire city rather than individual neighborhoods.
PB CLE organizers want $5 million for a civic participation fund, down from the $30.8 million they asked for last year. The original figure represented 30.8% of people living in poverty. They expect to present a new proposal to Cleveland City Council early next year.
Molly Martin, a member of the Cleveland Catholic Worker community, director of strategic initiatives at the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, and an organizer for PB CLE, is advocating for a specific policy. A ballot initiative is not out of the question if the City Council does not support its proposal.
“Our coalition started on the premise that we want to see PB CLE happen for the good of Cleveland,” Martin said. “ARPA was meant to create the infrastructure so we can do it with other public money later.” Adding that without the City Council’s support of their new PB CLE plan, it may be necessary to take the proposal directly to the people, “We have seen the ballot initiative work in other cities,” she said.