Hairston closes budget books

Staff Writer

Ald. Hairston (5th) has ended her ward’s participatory budgeting (PB) program.

According to Hairston — the first South Side alderman to give her constituents a choice to vote on how to spend more than $1 million in annual discretionary funds — the decision to put a halt to the district’s experiment with PB came from a 5th Ward meeting in October at the Gary Comer Youth Center, 7200 S. Ingleside Ave.

“I was approached by some of the very active participants in participatory budgeting to see if they could do it on their own,” Hairston said. “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.”

Prominent 5th Ward representatives during last year’s PB process included Sharon Davis, lead coordinator for the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore (CIESS) and Roger Huff, a Hyde Parker who played a key role in 2012 negotiations with the University of Chicago over its preservation of the 5700 block of South Woodlawn Ave.

PB is a process by which a public official’s constituents decide on how to spend district funds, which first originated in Brazil in 1989. The process was first brought to Chicago in the 49th Ward. Every Chicago ward receives $1.3 million in discretionary funds each year, traditionally allocated by the alderman.

Hairston says PB required $60,000 in administrative overhead, as well as additional funding she provided out-of-pocket. Chief of Staff Kimberly Webb said the alderman paid thousands of dollars for costs associated with PB, including ink cartridges, refreshments and paper for flyers.

“We just didn’t expect all of that,” Webb said. “We were warned it was going to be expensive, but it was just too expensive.”

Hairston announced the 5th Ward’s PB program in 2012 and held 24 meetings on the issue, by Webb’s count.

All 5th Ward constituents over the age of 16 were invited May 4 to rank the best ways to spend this year’s discretionary funding. Around 100 voters weighed in that day, with the highest number of votes cast for funding a community garden at 71st Street and the second most for improved lighting across the ward, including at the 57th and 59th street Metra viaducts.

“I was disappointed in the lack of participation,” Hairston said, citing voter turnout. “For a ward where there are 40,000-plus people, for all of the time and the energy and the effort that went into it, that’s not a good return.”

“I definitely believe in it, but you have to understand: before it had the label ‘participatory budgeting,’ I already included my constituents in the decisionmaking process,” Hairston added. “My way of doing this was not political favoritism. Mine was, this is the people’s money. I am their representative.”

In a June 1, 2011 column in the Hyde Park Herald — before the 5th Ward’s PB program started — Hairston said that as a longtime “champion of more transparency and inclusion in city governance,” she was excited about the process. She added that PB voter turnout could be similar to the one to five percent attendance at zoning and community alternative policing (CAPS) meetings.

She warned readers, however, “As committed as I am to this process, it will move forward only if various assemblies determine it should.”