City Council proposal suggests participatory budgeting for Berkeley

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A recent proposal by Councilmember Kriss Worthington to the Berkeley City Council would, if passed, make Berkeley the eighth city in the United States to implement participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting intends to enable citizens to have a voice in deciding how public money is spent. Community members would discuss how to allocate funds on projects “proposed by the residents for city improvement,” according to its City Council agenda item.

“The participatory budgeting program will have a positive impact on the budgetary process in Berkeley by encouraging residents to become more involved in local politics, deepening democracy, empowering communities, making budgeting more effective,” said the agenda item.

This process has been integrated into municipal budgeting in more than 1,500 cities worldwide, mostly in Latin America and Europe.

Though participatory budgeting varies from city to city, the basic process remains the same.

“In reality, participatory budgeting (of the Vallejo and San Francisco character) doesn’t really involve “budgeting” at all, in the traditional sense,” said Larry A. Rosenthal, an assistant adjunct professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, in an email. “Rather, it’s … a community-led social grants process.”

Communities host meetings in which members of the community come together to brainstorm possible projects for which the funds can be used. This list of projects is narrowed down to several top choices, for which feasibility and design are assessed by volunteer budget delegates and experts in order to develop project proposals. Members of the community then vote at a city assembly for the project they feel would benefit the city most. This vote encompasses all city residents, not only registered voters, and would include community members such as undocumented immigrants.

Rosenthal warned against the perception that participatory budgeting is implemented to fix a broken system, rather than augment it.

“In its current state of development participatory budgeting is promoted and practiced as an enhancement of traditional sociopolitical and policy processes, not a replacement,” Rosenthal said in an email.

If City Council votes to approve the proposal, Berkeley will join San Francisco and Vallejo, California, making it the third city in the Bay Area to utilize this process.

San Francisco’s introduction to participatory budgeting came in 2013, when the city’s then-District 3 supervisor David Chiu felt the system would help representatives discern the concerns and interests of residents, according to Julie Christensen, current supervisor for San Francisco’s third district.

The city’s pilot program put $100,000 of discretionary funds to a vote, and the results yielded American with Disabilities Act compliance assistance for small businesses, traffic light synchronization and back rent assistance for those in danger of eviction, among other projects. Since then, participatory budgeting has expanded to San Francisco’s seventh and 10th districts.

The council will hear Worthington’s proposal at its Tuesday meeting.

Contact Ivana Saric at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ivanas26.