A Different Side to Participatory Budgeting

JiOne late afternoon last year, Sabrina Bermingham, decided to take her dog, Jake, to Pottawattomie Dog Park in Rogers Park to exercise and play with the other dogs. To Bermigham’s surprise, the park was deserted and Jake’s paws started to bleed from the gravel in the park.

“My dog’s favorite thing to do is to chase a ball, but after awhile his paws started to bleed. I haven’t gone back to Pottawattomie Park since,” Bermingham said.

Bermingham’s disappointment with the park was especially poignant; she had played a role in building the park through participatory budgeting, the process which allows residents to have a say in what city projects are implemented in their wards.

In 2009 Ald. Joe Moore (49th) gave his citizens the right to take democracy into their own hands. Through the first participatory budgeting experiment in the U.S., residents have been deciding how to spend $1.3 million in taxpayer dollars.

Participatory budgeting is a multistage process that begins with gathering ideas from citizens. Those ideas range from improving transportation, parks, schools and public safety to cleaning up the environment. Next, a group of delegates is selected to shift down the ideas into a few projects that have a chance of being implemented. Finally, the best plans are placed on a ballot and citizens vote for their favorites.

“When I had the discretion to decide where the money went, I spent it on the meat and potatoes, projects like repairing sidewalks and roads. When we turned the power over to the people a lot of that was funded, but they also funded a lot of creative initiatives,” said Moore.

Although this idealistic project of democracy given to the people has been championed by Moore, many of his residents have criticized the way he is administrating participatory budgeting.

Some residents say that the failure of Pottawattomie Dog Park illustrates some of the problems with the process.

Not only are dogs getting injured, the park is being under utilized. The placement of the park draws many residents away from using the park.

Rogers Park resident since 1972, Tom Heineman, takes his son’s dog to the park occasionally to run around. He thinks the location is hidden.

“It may be next to the park, but it feels like it is next to an alley. It’s almost like dog walkers are being banned to a no-man’s-land that nobody else wanted,” Heineman said.

While the issue of placement was voted and approved by residents who were on the ward’s participatory budgeting committee, some residents say they were not included in the details of how projects are implemented and they have little resources when projects are complete to their satisfaction.

Helen, resident of Rogers Park for 50 plus years said on EveryBlock Chicago, “I think that the dog owners and others who wanted the dog park are the ones who chose this location. I seem to recall that consideration was also given to cleaning up this particular section of Pottawattomie.”

She added, “I voted for spending the participatory budgeting money for a dog park, though I don’t have a dog, because I think that dogs need a place to play. It cost a whole lot of money, and I doubt that I’d now vote for an additional dog park.”

As for the dog’s bleeding paws, Interim Chair of Pottawattomie Dog-Friendly Areas of the Chicago Park District, Bernard Garbo said, “The Park District will not allow natural grass on any dog-friendly area on its property. The only way to change this, as far as I can tell, is through political pressure on park district commissioners.”

Brian White, executive director at Lakeside Community Development Corporations and resident of Rogers Park who ran for alderman last year, said there is lack of accountability with the way Moore administers the budgeting process.

“One of the criticisms of participatory budgeting is, if you don’t like the process you have very limited recourse,” White said. “Your recourse is to vote Joe Moore out of office. You can’t hold your neighbors accountable and say, ‘You made a bad decision.’ There is no place in the process to have that accountability. We elect our public officials; we do not elect our neighbors.”

White explained, if the street in front of a resident’s house is damaged, the way the system is structured, they have to go to the meetings and vote to get their street fixed.

“Why do [they] have to do all that work just to get [their] street fixed?” White said.

Fellow resident and member of the Participatory Budgeting Leadership Committee, Jim Ginderske, who also ran against Moore in the 2007 aldermanic race, said he feels the community needs to be more involved in order to have participatory budgeting be successful.

“This process is to empower the community,” Ginderske said. “But people need to step up and get involved.”

As for Bermingham and her dog Jake, they have found an alternative dog park where Jake’s paws do not get torn up and start to bleed.

“This park is better for him,” Bermingham said. “It has green grass, which won’t tear up his paws like Pottawattomie’s park did.”


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