Chicago Ward Tries Citizen Budgeting

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In a city with a history of corruption and lack of transparency, one elected official is restoring meaning to the term “public funds.”

Participatory budget meeting in Brazil

Residents of Porto Alegre, Brazil, gather in May for the annual Regional Participatory Budgeting assembly. Porto Alegre was the first city to use participatory budgeting, and during some years all budgeting decisions were discussed and as much as 10 percent was decided directly by residents.

Photo by Michael Fox

Alderman Joe Moore, of Chicago’s 49th Ward, has launched what is believed to be the United States’ first experiment with “participatory budgeting,” a grassroots process that lets residents allocate municipal funding as they see fit. The residents of the far north-side ward will oversee the budgeting of this year’s $1 million in infrastructure funds. The city allocates these funds annually to alderpeople to use at their discretion. Moore decided his residents would know what infrastructure improvements were needed better than any government official.

The process started in November 2009 with neighborhood meetings facilitated by ward officials. There, any ward resident could express an opinion about how to spend the money. The process was first used in Brazil in the 1980s and has become popular in Latin America and around the world.

In the 49th Ward, suggestions ranged from more street lighting to installing community gardens. From the neighborhood meetings, residents elected representatives, who then divided into subcommittees to deal with the different project categories, like arts and public safety.

In March, committee representatives will present ward residents with a list of final projects for review. By April, the projects should be underway. If everything goes well, Moore has promised to do this every year and encourage other politicians to follow his lead.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at changecharity.blogspot.com.

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