Low turnout blamed for participatory budgeting ending

By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Staff Writer

Hyde Parkers met Ald. Leslie Hairston’s decision not to continue the 5th Ward’s participatory budgeting (PB) program this year with a mixed reaction.

The 5th Ward’s experiment with PB — a political process born in Brazil in the late ’80s, in which constituents decide how their district’s money is spent — was the first on the South Side. A series of meetings took place beginning in 2012 and culminated with a public vote last May on how to spend $1 million of the 5th Ward’s discretionary funds.

Although Hairston said the program will be assessed next year, she said earlier this month that it was discontinued on the heels of a monthly ward meeting last October, where some participants described the process as cumbersome.

“They said it was very time consuming, a lot of meetings, and that they thought the neighborhood groups that they had were active enough to do it without having all of the expenses that were associated with it,” Hairston said.

The decision has not been published in any of Hairston’s recent ward newsletters, nor is there any current information available on the alderman’s website, which still touts the 5th Ward’s PB program as a success.

A news brief dated May 8, entitled “5th Ward Participatory Budgeting Process Wins High Marks,” framed voter turnout as historic despite the fact that just over 100 people voted.

“Everyone was so enthusiastic,” Hairston Chief of Staff Kimberly Webb was quoted as saying. “Obviously there was a need for this level of community involvement and transparency. As word spreads, we look forward to more people taking part in next year’s Participatory Budgeting process.”

But last year’s process won’t be repeated this year, because of a low voter turnout and financial cost that led Hairston to question its effectiveness. No taxpayer funds were used, according to Hairston, but she said the program required a $60,000 administrator and some of her own money on refreshments and materials.

Hyde Parkers’ reactions to the program’s end ranged from understanding to disappointment — to both.

“The turnout of approximately 100 was extremely disappointing,” said Roger Huff, a co-chair on the 5th Ward’s participatory budgeting leadership committee. “I think several factors contributed. One of them was that the single polling place was in the far southwest corner of the ward.”

“And likely very difficult,” Huff added, “for persons from Hyde Park and South Shore to get to.”

In addition to the May 4 vote at Gary Comer College Prep, 7131 S. South Chicago Ave., early voting took place May 2 at the 5th Ward Service Office, 2325 E. 71st St. Still, the ward’s approximately 100 voters were dwarfed by more than 500 in the 46th Ward and around 1,400 in the 49th Ward, where PB was also available. This year, the 46th Ward will not be participating in PB, while the 22nd will begin its own program. The 49th Ward — the first in the country to use PB — began five years ago.

PB

Jackson Park Advisory Council member Kenneth Newman, who also served on the Parks and Recreation Committee — one of five committees — expressed disappointment at PB’s discontinuation, but said he understood the alderman’s decision given a lack of community involvement.

“It was kind of sad that more people weren’t involved,” Newman said. “It was a potentially very good thing for the community.

“I don’t really blame Alderman Hairston for what she decided to do, because when it came time to vote, the community didn’t show up.”

Hyde Parker Alon Friedman, who served on the Arts and Culture Committee, says participatory budgeting gave him a chance to learn about the concerns of residents from other parts of the ward.

“I do not know what’s going on 20 streets away from me, maybe there’s something that’s much more critical, that’s more important,” Friedman said.

“You need to have transparency in order to make sure that people understand that there’s no favoritism and everybody’s voices are heard,” he said. “I think that’s what I liked about the whole idea.”

Although he applauds Hairston for her decision to open up the budgeting process to others, he says certain changes could have been made — such as starting the process earlier — or using part of the $1.3 million in discretionary funding on related costs.

This is currently impossible, however, according to project coordinator Maria Hadden, of the New York City-based Participatory Budgeting Project, a nonprofit which has worked as a project lead for Chicago’s wards and similar processes nationwide.

She says Chicago wards’ discretionary funds can only be spent on fixed assets, not services. “The menu money is bond money, and it cannot be used for anything other than infrastructure,” Hadden said.

Along with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, the Participatory Budgeting Project raised around $175,000 worth in funds and services to facilitate the city’s PB processes — including the printing of ballots and election flyers. A new position in the Office of Management and Budget, announced by Mayor Emanuel last October, could help Chicago’s wards manage their participatory budgeting processes, according to Hadden.

“This should be a huge boost for aldermen doing PB,” said Hadden, a resident of the 49th Ward, adding that she hopes it “will address some of the challenges the 5th Ward had.”

One of Hyde Park’s more outspoken critics of Hairston, tax attorney Anne Marie Miles, ran against her for 5th Ward Alderman in 2011. She was also a supporter of Hairston’s PB program and served as a member of its Centers and Spaces Committee.

Miles also said she would like proof of the alderman’s claim that she spent thousands out of her own pocket to support the program. “I’d like to see the receipts,” Miles said.

Although the recent political rival chalked up low voter turnout to “disenfranchisement in the ward, and disenchantment with Leslie,” she said she thinks PB would have attracted a higher turnout in its second year.

“I share her concern that there was a small voter turnout,” Miles said. “But I think you have to give the process a second year.”

Friedman agreed. “It was all a learning curve for all of us, so I think that canceling it only after one year, in my opinion, was premature.”

“We should reconsider and maybe try it again next year, much, much earlier,” he added, perhaps in the summer. “I think that if we do that we have a good chance to succeed and get many more people in voting for the projects.”

j.bishku@hpherald.com