Hills & Gardens: Self-government’s appeal

October 3, 2012 By Trudy Whitman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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So who knows our neighborhood needs better than we do?  A rhetorical question, of course, but one that gets at the heart of a City Council initiative called Participatory Budgeting.

In 2011-2012, Brad Lander was one of four NYC Councilmembers leading their districts in a program first hatched in Brazil and launched in this country in Chicago.  The success of the actions taken in NYC’s four forward-thinking districts led to the program’s doubling—eight councilmembers, representing over one million New Yorkers, have dedicated a total of at least $10 million in NYC discretionary capital funds for the 2012-2013 program.  It is we, the constituents, who decide how the money is spent.

In Lander’s district, the 39th, 2,200 neighbors came out last March to vote for the projects on which to spend an allotted $1 million.  Among those that received the most votes were the renovation of two malfunctioning bathrooms at a public school, a community composting system near the Gowanus Canal designed to turn 1 ton of food waste into soil every day, and the planting of 100 new trees in areas that lack shade and greenery.

“At a time when our national faith in government is low, Participatory Budgeting has helped restore confidence in democratic government as a vehicle for collective action to solve problems,” Lander wrote in a newsletter announcing the first round of neighborhood assemblies for the second year of the program.  They are being held in September and October in five neighborhoods within his district. 

One such assembly was held at the Carroll Gardens branch of the library on Clinton Street on September 24.  The auditorium was a standing-room-only scene, notable for the average age of the audience—younger by far  than those who regularly attend Community Board 6 and Cobble Hill Association meetings.

Brad Lander characterized the meeting as a kickof” event for those with a “shared self-interest in democracy.”  He called upon delegates from the previous year to describe their experiences.  All stressed the hard work involved and the gratification that resulted from the efforts of their dedicated groups.  Delegates Neil Reilly and George Sanchez noted that neighbors would help to make real decisions about real money.  The role of volunteers goes far beyond consultant status, they said. 

Discretionary funds are city budget resources allocated by elected officials.  Typically, each councilmember can allocate $2
to $9 million in discretionary funds every year. 

After a question and answer period, the audience was divided into breakout groups to begin discussions of viable capital projects.

Here’s what happens next:  Voluntary budget delegates will attend training sessions where they learn more about NYC’s capital budget and how the neighborhood budgeting process feeds into the city’s annual cycle.  Then the delegates begin to meet on a regular basis.  They will work on committees of their choosing, interacting with council staff members and experts with particular knowledge of their target projects.  During this period, delegates will also travel to other neighborhoods to prioritize needs for specific services and items. 

After proposals are written and edited, they will be presented at a forum in late winter. Then, they will be put to the vote in March.  Voting stations are set up all over the 39th District to make the process as convenient as possible.

Of course constituent participation is what makes Participatory Budgeting successful.  To learn how to become involved, visit BradLander.com/PB.

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