Participatory Budgeting Comes to New York

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Brad Lander, Brooklyn City Councilman (D-39), and Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council member representing East Harlem and parts of the Bronx and Upper West Side, and member of the council's Progressive Caucus, discussed their new plan to involve constituents in budget allocation.

Four New York City Council members are letting their constituents decide how to spend part of their budget. Through a process called "participatory budgeting" neighborhood assemblies are being held around the districts to decide how at least $4 million of discretionary funds should be spent.

Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander said, the timing for the project is right.

At a moment when trust in government is low, we believe it's an opportunity to bring people together to participate actively in democracy in a new way and from what I've seen so far, it really is calling out our best democratic selves.

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said she's attended most of her district's neighborhood assemblies so far and the response from the community has been positive. Her district has already held five out of seven assemblies that will occur throughout her district in October and November. Some of the ideas presented by the residents are what you'd expect, she said, like fixing up a community center, rebuilding a basketball court, and other infrastructure projects.

Every time I go to one of the meetings...people are very, very thankful and appreciative and we basically tell them that this, at the end of the day, this is your money.

Jim in the Bronx called in to the Brian Lehrer Show with one concern about the plan:

This really sounds like a great idea in principle but in my experience in these so-called community projects is, usually better educated, more fluent, better organized people who in effect, take these things over. I would like to know if you're going to do anything to ensure that people who are less privileged and less well-connected and less well-organized are really brought into this process.

Councilman Lander said he's held break-out groups in different languages at neighborhood assemblies and has reached out to local non-profits and civic organizations to encourage residents to come forward with their ideas.

According to Councilwoman Mark-Viverito, she has always reached out to the public for their opinion on how money should be spent, but this is a different approach.

It is about allowing people to also, neighbor and neighbor, to meet. We've had some very interesting dialogue happening in my district. And my district is geographically extremely somebody may come with a predetermined idea of what they want to see funded, but when they talk to a neighbor that is saying, you know what, in my public housing development, I need this basketball court resurfaced, people pay attention to that and say, you know that need is greater and I would like to support that concept and that idea more than the concept I came in with. So it really is about getting the community to know each other better.

One ward in Chicago has also experimented with participatory budgeting, but according to Councilman Lander, no where else in the U.S. has tried until now.

Something different happens when people have the power to make the decision. Of course we all consult with our community and everybody tries to make these decisions in ways that reflect community need, but there's something sort of magical and democratic that happens when people in consultation with their neighbors get to make the decision.

The community vote on the ideas brought forth will take place in March 2012. The other two city council members participating are Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams and Queens Councilman Erik Ulrich.

For more information on participatory budgeting, go to