Originally published/aired on KQED on May 28, 2013.
The Vallejo City Council is set to vote Tuesday on a series of projects — from streetlights to senior centers — that were chosen directly by nearly 4,000 residents last month. These projects came about as part of the city’s adoption of a new civic model called “participatory budgeting.” The items up for a vote, totaling about $3 million, represent a small chunk of the city’s budget. But Monica Tipton, who volunteered as a budget delegate, said even that small amount wasn’t so easy to grapple with.
“I learned that all those people that I was like, ‘Oh my God, they make such stupid decisions, why don’t they do this, this and this…?’ I know now why they don’t do this, this and this,” she said. “It’s a tough process.”
Participatory budgeting is a new twist on an old theme, dating back to New England town meetings. The model Vallejo adopted was developed in Brazil in the 1980s, and it’s been picked up in places like Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
Professor Larry Rosenthal, from UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, said people have been thinking about direct democracy for years. “What differs here is that a city like Vallejo or wards in Chicago have actual resources,” he said, “and the person who was in control of those resources, or the agency, makes a decision that they no longer wish to exercise discretion in the first instance about how that money gets spent. Instead, they want the community to decide.”
The idea is spreading. In San Jose, a city councilman is pushing for participatory budgeting. In Oakland, community activists are proposing different approaches. The Community Democracy Project, or CDP, is an all-volunteer group that meets every week at Sudo Room in downtown Oakland. Co-founder Sonya Rifkin said she wants to give residents power to decide the entire city budget.
“Will it take a concerted effort? Yes,” she said. “Will it take time to work, to get in the groove of it? Yes. Will we learn a lot along the way? Yes. But is it worth it? I think so.“
Rifkin’s group hopes to put an initiative on the Oakland ballot next year.
Adam Stiles of Open Budget Oakland, which creates online resources to help people make sense of city spending, said the group’s new visualization tools, also known as “civic hacking,” help translate between city officials and the community.
“What we are trying to do is create a platform where people can easily understand the budget, “ Stiles said. “Then, based on what they see, have a more informed discussion about it and then find out how to get more involved and participate in the budget process.”
Most cities actually have a public process right now, such as Oakland’s town hall meetings. At one of those sessions, Oakland resident Mary Forte echoed the sentiments of many residents who showed up that day.
“There just seem like they’re always questions,” said Forte. “It’s a lot of numbers that are really complex for people to understand.”
Groups like CDP and Open Budget Oakland can make things clearer for voters like Forte and could involve more people in budget decisions. But UC Berkeley’s Rosenthal said that the more participatory the process, the more unwieldy it can become.
“These things are extraordinarily difficult to administer in total budget settings,” Rosenthal said. “We would be looking at a substantial investment of time and effort.”
Back in Vallejo, Monica Tipton said the large turnout that the participatory budgeting vote attracted should convince the council to ratify the citizen-approved projects.
“They will approve it, I have confidence of that,” she said.