‘Participatory budgeting’ goes to Washington

Will a south Sacramento’s visit to D.C. mean more open government in Sacramento?

Last December, the Obama administration issued its second Open Government National Action Plan, promoting its best ideas for encouraging citizen participation and transparency in government.

These include modernizing federal open records laws, increasing access to government data and a commitment to promote greater fiscal transparency at all levels of government.

The White House also endorsed something called “participatory budgeting,” which Bites has mentioned from time to time. Next week, the White House will convene participatory-budgeting advocates from around the country to figure out how to encourage more local governments to adopt the practice.

The basic idea is simple: Citizens set spending priorities and vote directly on spending decisions. PB is gaining ground in American cities as a way to engage citizens and spread power to groups who feel shut out of fiscal decision-making.

In New York and Chicago, citizens decided on small discretionary budgets within city council districts. Nearby Vallejo was the first place in the United States to use participatory budgeting city-wide.

There, citizen assemblies—which included residents as young as 16 years old—forwarded their ideas to the ballot and last year approved $3 million worth of funding for pothole repairs, street lights, parks, school libraries, school counselors, spaying-and-neutering programs and street cameras. Work has begun on those projects, and residents have submitted hundreds more to be voted on in the fall.

Other California cities are following Vallejo’s lead. In March, a Long Beach city council member piloted a PB project, inviting district residents to vote on allocations. Sidewalk repair, tree trimming and library repairs won out. And in San Diego, a coalition of labor and community groups is proposing a PB project that would give residents a direct say in funding about $3 million worth of projects in low-income areas of the city.

Former Vallejo city council member Marti Brown was the first one who really explained PB to Bites. She was its champion in that city. She’s since moved to Sacramento, where she works as executive director of the North Franklin District Business Association. And she’s headed to the White House next week to help spread the PB gospel.

“The whole idea is that you’re trying to engage people who have felt disconnected and disregarded from the process,” Brown told Bites.

Disconnected and disregarded? In Sacramento?

And elsewhere in California. In 2012, California was 48th in the nation in voter participation. “People are understandably cynical. I think we need to find ways to make our civic processes more engaging,” says Anne Stuhldreher with The California Endowment. The Endowment has allocated $100,000 to help promote PB projects in the 14 cities targeted in its Building Healthy Communities program. Sacramento is one of those cities, as are San Diego and Long Beach.

Stuhldreher says building healthy communities includes building a community’s capacity to make its own decisions. “A sense of agency and control over your life is a big predictor of health. The more people can participate in the decisions that affect the quality of their life, the healthier they will be.”

Speaking of ailing democratic institutions, participatory budgeting could be a help to the Sacramento City Unified School District.

“It would give the community an opportunity to talk about what they want, instead of just responding to what district staff proposes,” says Carl Pinkston with the Sacramento Black Parallel School Board. Pinkston is trying to build support for PB to be part of the school district’s 2015-16 budget. A good starting point would be the supplemental funds provided under the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula. The new law includes requirements for greater public input in district spending.

School funding can be frustratingly complex for average people. And unfortunately the Sacramento City school board has had a bad habit of making some important decisions in secret. What are they chances they’ll want to share more power with citizens?

“I think deep down they want to see more people involved, but they don’t see a way to do it,” says school board candidate Anna Molander, who wants to bring PB to the district, which has suffered from declining enrollment, increased class sizes, layoffs and school closures.

“More than most other districts for miles around, we need people to buy in. We have to use every tool we can to get people to re-energize around this district,” says Molander.

Whether it’s at the city level, school districts or the state, Brown notes, “We have a crisis of trust in government.” The public often doesn’t have good information about budgets, or confidence that public officials are acting in the public interest, rather than the interest of campaign donors.

“There’s a gap between the elected officials and how the public feels about government. I think PB can help bridge that gap. It’s about restoring our faith in each other and in government.”