How participatory budgeting became normal practice on the New York City Council

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Participatory budgeting is now in fashion in New York City.

Starting next year, between 14 and 22 members of the 51-person City Council are expected to give their constituents a say in how to dole out a small part of their capital funds, according to a study conducted by a member of an advocacy group called Participatory Budgeting in New York City.

That’s a marked increase over the coming budget year beginning this fall, when nine councilmembers will be taking part in participatory budgeting, and over the two budget years before that, when eight and four members participated, respectively. 

Also notable is the fact that at least two of the councilmembers vying for the speakership of the City Council are themselves participatory-budgeting devotees: Mark Weprin of Queens and Melissa Mark-Viverito of East Harlem.

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“I think there are great opportunities for expansion that include support from the Council’s central staff,” said Brad Lander, one of the four members who first adopted the practice in 2011.

Here's how it works.

Every year, councilmembers get a few million dollars a piece to fund capital projects in their districts, for things like playground improvements and library renovations. These dollars are distinct from member items on the expense side of the budget, which typically go to local nonprofits and have been a factor in many of the recent corruption scandals in the Council. 

Participatory budgeting refers to the onerous process by which councilmembers allow constituents to develop and then vote for ways to spend at least $1 million of those capital funds. It’s direct democracy in action, in the sense that it gives constituents a say in how some of their money is spent.

NYPIRG's Gene Russianoff lives in district that has participatory budgeting and calls himself a "big fan."

"My wife and I are in [Councilman Brad] Lander's district and we have voted this year and last on the projects we thought were most meritorious," he emailed me. "I thought it worked on many levels: It promoted local democracy, increased public awareness of many local issues and kept the process open and honest."

In the districts where it’s been used so far, voters have elected to fund things like bathroom stall doors in an elementary school and canoe launches for MacNeil Park.

“It really brings out in people a powerful sense of being shared stewards of the public realm,” Lander told me.

And it may soon become de rigueur in the City Council.

Earlier this summer, an affiliate of Community Voices Heard, a progressive community organizing group and a member of the Participatory Budgeting NYC coalition, sent out questionnaires to all 213 council candidates then registered with the campaign finance board.

Forty-eight candidates responded that they would in fact implement participatory budgeting in their districts (or were already doing so), including Carlos Menchaca, who’s running against Sara Gonzalez in the 38th council district encompassing Red Hook and Sunset Park.

“People are asking for more transparency across the board,” Menchaca told me.

Eight candidates, however responded in the negative, including Bronx councilwoman Annabel Palma, who argued that participatory budgeting “does not engage the community in a [real] way,” and pits “neighborhoods and organizations against each other;” and former Queens assemblyman Rory Lancman, who said he would need to study “whether those districts' most needy residents were fairly represented in the process.”

Some experts also argue that participatory budgeting is only as good as the process by which it's implemented.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2012 Nation article on the topic:  

Gianpaolo Baiocchi, an associate professor at Brown University who has studied participatory budgeting and has been involved in the processes in both Chicago and New York City, cautions against the simplistic assumption that if participation is incorporated into an existing process, it automatically improves. In Porto Alegre, after the city’s administration changed hands in 2005, the city began “to pursue pretty explicit policies of privileging the city’s elites” and investing in projects outside of the participatory process, which technically still functioned. Meanwhile, over a thousand projects chosen through the participatory process remain on a long to-do list. A former participatory budgeting councilwoman from Porto Alegre who resigned in 2006 has deemed the process “co-opted, clientalistic, and in exchange for favors.” Su calls this situation “PB light,” in which the government uses participatory budgeting as lip service.