49th Ward residents voted to update playground equipment at Touhy Park. Construction on the playground should start next year.
Residents of four Chicago wards are getting to decide how government money is spent in their communities, in what’s being called an experiment in direct democracy.
Every year, Chicago aldermen are given $1.3 million to spend at their discretion on improvement projects. Participatory budgeting gets rid of the “at their discretion,” and instead gives the residents the power to vote on how the money is used. Residents vote on how to spend $1 million of the money, and the extra $300,000 is kept by the ward in case of emergency needs.
Starting this week and continuing through the rest of October, all four wards will hold neighborhood assemblies, meetings where residents come together to discuss what projects they want to spend the money on.
Participatory budgeting began in the 49th ward led by Ald. Joe Moore in 2009. Moore announced last week that the program would be spreading to the wards of three other aldermen: Leslie Hairston (5th), John Arena (45th) and John Cappleman (46th).
Moore contacted a number of his colleagues to spread the idea, and these were the three alderman most interested in testing the idea.
“I saw people in my community that were revitalized by the process,” Moore said last week. “It’s the most popular thing I’ve ever done in my community.”
Participatory budgeting originally began in Brazil in 1989, and has since spread to many other cities and countries. However, Chicago’s 49th Ward was the first political jurisdiction in the United States to adopt the policy, according to Moore.
Ava Mitchell, a 49th Ward resident, has been to several of the previous neighborhood assemblies.
“I think it’s going well for the most part, but not all the residents like to participate,” said Mitchell. “I don’t have any problems with it right now, but I don’t think it always represents a real consensus.”
Since the program started three years ago, 49th Ward residents have voted to install a new playground, fix damaged sidewalks, plant 100 trees throughout Rogers Park and paint murals at CTA viaducts. New projects will be picked at the upcoming neighborhood assemblies.
Arline Welty, who lives in the 46th Ward, has volunteered to be part of the ward’s participatory budgeting leadership committee. This committee is composed of residents who compile the ideas brought up at the neighborhood assemblies. After all the assemblies are held, the leadership committee puts together a list of the issues that were brought up most often, and those issues get put on a ballot for ward residents to vote on.
The 46th Ward’s first assembly meeting is 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Anshe Emet Synagogue, 3751 N. Broadway. roof of residency is not required.
Welty said her feelings are mixed as to whether the program will be successful.
“At this point, it really is an experiment,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people know about the change and the urgency of voting and getting involved. If they don’t, the minority of residents will get to choose how to spend the money.”
Dick Simpson, professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago and former alderman, said it is important for all residents of the ward to be involved early and often.
“The whole process depends on the alderman’s willingness to listen to the residents and the residents being willing to participate,” said Simpson. “However, I can’t think of an instance where the process has gone badly, and I think Moore has been doing a good job with the 49th Ward.”