I was thrilled to see that participatory budgeting is one of the things that the Portland City Council might pursue in 2022 (“What’s next for the more progressive Portland City Council?,” Nov. 22). I promoted participatory budgeting when I ran for City Council in 2017 and 2018, and it looks like its time has finally arrived.

Participatory budgeting has been a wildly successful model in other cities and towns around the world for decades. Megacities like New York and Paris use participatory budgeting, but so do Portland-sized cities like Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Vallejo, California.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, has had a participatory budgeting program for almost a decade, and voters in Boston just passed a ballot measure (by a 2-1 margin!) that will start a new program there.

So what is participatory budgeting? It’s a way to give communities more direct control over how their tax dollars are spent, because who knows better what a neighborhood needs than the people living in it?

Let’s say you’re a parent in Portland’s Riverton neighborhood and you want the city to build or refurbish a local playground. How would you go about that today?

You’d try to contact your city councilor or the city manager, and make your request. Some councilors are notorious for not responding to emails or returning phone calls, so your journey might end right there.

But if you do get a councilor’s ear, they have to be willing to carry it forward. No matter how many people make requests or sign petitions – if your councilor isn’t interested, that’s that.

But if they are interested – what happens then? Well, once a year City Manager Jon Jennings used to invite every councilor into his office – one by one – and ask what their budget priorities were. It was then completely up to the city manager which of those projects to fund, and to what degree.

This happened entirely behind closed doors. The public never heard what councilors requested – they saw only what the city manager’s final decisions were. How much horse trading went on? How many worthy projects ended up in the trash bin? We will never know.

This process sucks, doesn’t it? It’s not transparent, not inclusive and not democratic.

Well, with participatory budgeting, the neighborhood could decide to refurbish that playground all on its own.

Participatory budgeting sets aside a small pot of money for each district or neighborhood, and allows that community to democratically decide how to spend it (with a few common-sense guardrails).

This is not new spending. It would come out of the existing capital expenses budget. The only difference is who allocates it: the people, instead of politicians and bureaucrats.

With participatory budgeting, a series of community meetings is held over the course of a year to brainstorm ideas. As many people are included as possible: some sessions might be held entirely in Spanish or Somali. Other sessions might include child care so that parents can attend. Others would be scheduled for early mornings, so that late-shift workers can participate, too.

Ideas bubble up from these meetings, then city staff help to refine them into fully fledged proposals.

Finally, these proposals are put to a community vote. Many cities have chosen to allow young people (for example, 16 and up) or noncitizen residents to vote, and typically the vote is held over a full week – or even two! – giving everyone who wants to participate an opportunity to do so.

Once all the votes are in, the most popular proposals are funded, and the next participatory budgeting cycle begins.

Participatory budgeting is a way to take power back from elected officials and return it to the people. It’s just democracy on a different scale. What could be more American than that?


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