Evanston City Clerk Devon Reid hosted a sparsely-attended forum Wednesday night to promote the concept of participatory budgeting — which gives residents an opportunity to vote directly on some portion of municipal government spending.
Thea Crum, associate director of the neighborhood initiative at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois Chicago, and Olga Bautista, director of Community Leadership at Our City Our Voice, said the goal of their efforts is to give residents control over the city’s budgeting process.
Reid said he saw the concept as a way to get more young people, minorities and lower-income residents involved in government.
Three supporters of preserving the Harley Clarke mansion who turned out for the session.
But of the nine residents who turned out for the forum, eight were white and almost all appeared to be middle-aged or older.
Leslie Perkins, communications director for Chicago Alderman John Arena, 45th Ward, said each Chicago alderman has a discretionary fund of about $1.3 million annually. Arena and several other aldermen have opted to use the participatory budgeting process to allocate those funds.
Across all 50 Chicago wards that adds up to less than one percent of total city spending each year.
Perkins says the funding is restricted to capital improvement projects. She added that it still is difficult to get people engaged in the decision making process and that it often requires providing food at meetings and making child care available to make the meetings more accessible to people who don’t usually participate.
Despite that, Perkins said, of the 56,000 people in the ward, typically no more than 10 showed up for any of the meetings designed to come up with a list of potential projects.
She said they were able to reach more people by going to Farmers Markets in the ward with a flip-book of project proposals. “We talked to maybe 100 people over the course of the farmers market sessions,” Perkins said.
Reid suggested that the roughly $2 million in annual federal Community Development Block Grant funds Evanston receives, which are targeted to some of the city’s lower-income areas, could be one fund used for a participatory budgeting test in Evanston.
Any action on the participatory budgeting idea would require City Council approval