By Anne Carr
The wheels of progress have slowly churned for Participatory Budgeting (PB), but in recent City moves, the PB train has jumped the track. Gird yourself for the City Council of September 9 to see if the PB Steering Committee (PBSC), the City Council and community have the will to pull PB back on course. If you are a friend of PB, please write and/or attend Council to show your support!
Here’s what happens on Sept 9 City Council. There should be two agenda items related to PB:
- An “information-only” report by City staff that explains their vetting of community proposals for PB.
- A request by the PB Steering Committee to a) review the 42 proposals themselves, and b) delay the original PB timeline to do so.
What’s at stake? ThePB Massacre
To understand what’s happening with PB, first we back up. On July 18, after four months of interaction with City staff, Budget Delegates submitted 42 proposals for the ballot. City staff reviewed these proposals, and notified the teams on Aug 15 that:
- 7 proposals were approved for the ballot without revisions;
- 20 proposals were sent back for minor to major revisions, with 4 cases of substantial if not radical revisions;
- 15 proposals were declared ineligible.
In addition to the high number of rejections and revisions, equally concerning is an apparent inconsistency of reviews. For 8 criteria, and at least 29 instances of vetting judgments, review criteria were applied inconsistently.
With only one-sixth of the proposals initially accepted for ballot, and more than one-third rejected, some call Aug 15 the PB train wreck, aka, the PB Massacre. Was the City trying to crush the community, or did that happen without them noticing or caring? Were they looking for ways to eliminate proposals, or are they trying to uphold the program’s goal of public empowerment? Some say that the City overcompensated in trying to tighten up PB from Cycle 1.
Even if some of the 20 proposals in revision make it onto the PB Ballot, there’s the problem of a half-year process, only to then tell 15 teams that their proposals aren’t eligible for dubious & inconsistent reasons. Unlike other City processes, the City is not allowing an Appeal, or the equal opportunity to revise bounced proposals.
City management says they have good reasons for their inconsistencies; that they will explain them in an information-only Council item on Sept 9. Many community leaders say they want more than an explanation – that we need action and correction of this year’s mistakes this year, instead of waiting to fix the PB Rulebook for Cycle 3.
PB Steering Committee Wants to Steer: Review Projects & Delay Vote
In addition to shocking Budget Delegates, the City’s vetting also shocked the PB Steering Committee. After being stunned by the news, the PBSC held a special meeting last week (8/28), and voted to insist on a review of proposals by their Committee, noting that according to the PB Rulebook, this step had been skipped in the process.
In choosing this option, the PBSC also recommends delaying the PB vote, so that all eligible proposals can make it on the ballot. Most importantly, a Review by the PBSC could help the process stay fair and transparent to the community. In the end, the PBSC decided that the best way to serve the public goals of PB was to ensure an open community process, even if the timeline was delayed.
What happens on Sept 9 City Council? Timeline or Community Fairness?
Right now there is a potential collision on the City Council Sept. 9 agenda, and a hot mess that gets into Parliamentary politics. Before you get lost, understand that there’s a two-step process for Council actions: first, a vote to get something on a future agenda; second, the actual vote on the item. This process protected us from the Strong Mayor scheme, but it collides with the original timeline for the PB Vote. In the original schedule, the PB ballot is supposed to be finished Sept 10.
For Council on Sept 9, after the Mayor’s pre-emptive Parliamentary moves on 8/26, the agenda will include an information-only report by the City explaining their vetting of 42 community proposals for PB. The Mayor was careful to stifle the Council’s ability to take action on Sept 9;
despite Council member McConnell’s efforts, progressive Council members did not stand up to the Mayor’s pre-emptive constraints.
Thus, Council will get a nice report on Sept 9 in which the City explains their vetting decisions. If Council disagrees with the City’s vetting, they can’t take action then – instead, they have to vote to take action at another Council meeting. In the normal course of a Council review, they would have the authority to take actions when they hear a matter.
After the PB Steering Committee’s vote 8/28, community leaders are pushing for an alternative PB outcome: a vote to allow the PB Steering Committee to conduct its own review of proposals, and delay the PB vote to allow that to happen.
With the City’s two-step process for Council agenda items, the Council needs to first “agendize” the PBSC action for the next Council meeting. Second, the Council would then actually vote on the PBSC initiative.
Questionable City Decisions – with no Appeal?
Unlike most other City processes, the City has taken the stance that no Appeals should be allowed for their PB decisions. There are 8 citizen committees that hear appeals on other city decisions, yet somehow, for the program most oriented towards citizens, the City is saying it’ll work on an appeals process for Cycle 3, and leave mistakes uncorrected in Cycle 2. It should be noted that the City Manager has the discretion to undertake many steps in PB that are not in the Rulebook (and already has), so the absence of a specified Appeal Process does not prevent him from having one.
While City Attorney Claudia Quintana noted that the City is notrequired to offer an Appeals Process, neither is it prohibited, making the City’s denial of an Appeal all the more troubling. The essence of PB is for the public to participate and decide, so denying an Appeal of questionable City decisions violates the spirit and purpose of the program.
Keeping PB on Track
In insisting on a review of the 42 proposals, the PB Steering Committee was making the hard choice to keep faith with the community, rather than let the City or an arbitrary timeline dictate results. Going back to the PB Rulebook, the essence of Participatory Budgeting is to let “community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.”
The City’s vetting of community proposals may have pulled away from the purpose and goals of Participatory Budgeting – but hopefully the PB Steering Committee and the community can get the program back on track. Come to the next City Council, September 9, and step up for Participatory Budgeting. The Council needs to know that the community wants PB, and that the community wants a fair and transparent process.