Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Solidarity Economy in the Big Apple

Four New York City Council Members, Each With
$1 Million, Will Let Public Decide How It’s Spent

By KATE TAYLOR via New York Times

Four City Council members, intrigued by experiments begun in Brazil to let ordinary citizens determine how government uses tax dollars, say they plan to allow their constituents to decide how $4 million is spent next year.

Through a process known as participatory budgeting, constituents in each of the four Council districts will be enlisted to develop and choose among proposals for local capital projects like street repairs, new parks and public artworks. The money — $1 million in each district — will come out of the council members’ discretionary funds. (Among the city’s Council districts, discretionary funds range in size from $1.5 million to $6 million.)

Three Democrats, Brad Lander and Jumaane D. Williams of Brooklyn, and Melissa Mark-Viverito of Manhattan, and one Republican, Eric Ulrich of Queens, are taking part.

Participatory budgeting has been used for years in some Brazilian communities and is now being used in parts of Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, but the only parallel in the United States, council members say, is in Chicago. Alderman Joe Moore introduced participatory budgeting in his district in North Chicago two years ago; he said in a telephone interview that it was “easily the most popular initiative that I have ever undertaken” in 20 years on the Chicago City Council. The projects financed so far, he said, included a community garden, a dog park and murals under train underpasses.

In New York, Mr. Lander has pushed the effort, saying he was impressed by the efforts that some of Mr. Moore’s constituents had undertaken. He cited a sidewalk-repair project for which a group of residents had walked every sidewalk in the district to determine which most needed to be fixed.

Mr. Lander said that was “the sort of thing that a council member is not going to be able to do, and the city is not going to be able to do, at that level of detail.”

The City Council’s use of its discretionary funds has been a focus of criticism in recent years, particularly for what is seen as a lack of transparency in how the money is distributed. Mr. Lander said he hoped participatory budgeting might help to address some of those concerns. He also said he thought it would increase voter confidence.

“I think that having the chance to be really directly involved in how this money gets spent will increase people’s faith that it’s being spent well,” Mr. Lander said.

The process will begin this fall, with neighborhood assemblies at which constituents can suggest needs in their communities and ideas for projects.

The most active volunteers will meet over the fall and winter to discuss the suggested ideas, determine their costs and then present the options to the public; residents at least 18 years old will then cast ballots on which projects they want to see financed. Those projects will then become part of the city’s 2013 capital budget.

Mr. Williams said he hoped the experience would help his constituents feel more engaged in city government.

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