Participatory budgeting meeting in Vallejo. (Photo courtesy City of Vallejo)
Why would Vallejo, the first large California city to declare bankruptcy agree to hand over the reins of the city budget to members of the community?
Supporters of the Northern California city’s new participatory budgeting would say it’s precisely the right time to empower the community to decide how to spend a portion of a public budget.
Vallejo became one of the first cities to ever implement participatory budgeting precisely because direct democracy is at the core of the process and the idea requires everyone in the room to know the realities of city budgeting inside and out.
The Northern California city hopes, by getting citizens to dig into the budget process, it will help restore trust and confidence in local government, boost citizen engagement and make the whole budget process more transparent.
When it was announced that Vallejo was the first to engage in city-wide participatory budgeting, community members erupted into applause at an initial meeting.
“I think [the applause] is because Vallejo became first for something positive,” said Councilwoman Marti Brown. “Participatory budgeting is a good way to build faith and trust in government, especially local government.”
The California Forward Transparency Portal is devoted to highlighting methods that encourage civic engagement by identifying and promoting best practices that raise the bar in government budgeting and decision-making. Participatory Budgeting, also known as PB, brightly reflects such principles and the process certainly increases transparency by cultivating a closer relationship between elected representatives and their constituents.
Councilwoman Brown was instrumental in bringing Participatory Budgeting to Vallejo and has been an early proponent and advocate of this process in American cities starting in 2008. She took the initial steps to educate and urge her colleagues on the dais to consider the approach as a pilot program due to revenues available from Measure B, a local tax measure approved by voters.
Brown explained that one hurdle to gaining acceptance from the council was agreeing on how much of Measure B’s revenues should be set aside for PB, and ultimately consensus was reached on $3.2 million, or 30%. Brown stated, “I commend my colleagues for giving the process a chance.”
Commenting on why PB was particularly appealing, Councilwoman Brown said, “It was a way to give back to the community and also put a different face on Vallejo because instead of being the largest city to declare bankruptcy first in California, we became the first to have participatory budgeting.”
Vallejo is indeed the first city in America to have its council adopt participatory budgeting city-wide with funds from a general sales tax measure rather than in just one district using discretionary funds. Setting a new first gave Vallejo the opportunity to move on from a period of financial turmoil, and it appears the community was eager for such an opening to get involved and restore faith.
These sentiments were echoed by Ginny Browne, Vallejo’s PB Community Engagement Coordinator.
“When people are engaged meaningfully in a political process, they feel a greater investment in its outcomes and are in a better position to hold those accountable who are responsible for implementation,” said Browne.
Browne works for the Participatory Budgeting Project, which is unique in its mission to support the start-up of new participatory budgeting processes, as it provides technical assistance to local governments and community groups interested in launching PB. A key challenge for Browne’s work is bringing the community up to speed not only on how PB works but also city finances, as successful civic engagement requires an informed community.
Browne said the educational opportunities inherent to PB are one of the many positives of this process because “participants [learn] how cities work – what different city departments and agencies do, what things cost, and how budgets are allocated to meet community needs.”
Vallejo is in the process of holding nine public assemblies, which serve as brainstorming sessions. Ultimately, a budget delegate turns ideas submitted by the public into a ballot with concrete proposals and costs over the course of several months. At that point city staff will become far more involved in order to provide the support of experts and city staff who help delegates understand the costs associated with different types of projects, particularly feasibility and legality. Residents are set to vote in May 2013.
“I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about the opportunity for people to identify and design projects, as well as putting them on the ballot in a way we never have before,” said Councilwoman Brown.
Also in keeping with the priorities of the Transparency Portal, PB reflects an important use of technology as a way to increase engagement and transparency. Community members who cannot attend public assemblies in person can visit Vallejo’s PB website to submit ideas online and find a wealth of information about the process, other proposed ideas, and volunteering.
Local governments looking to increase community engagement face no shortage of options or resources, but Participatory Budgeting is notable in that it allows a local community to put words into action for the advancement of common goals in a democratic process.
Ginny Brown shared the following advice for communities that want to pursue participatory budgeting: “First and foremost, reach out folks who have started PB in their communities. It’s not a one-size-fits-all process, but those who’ve implemented PB can share invaluable lessons learned at every step of the process.”
You can view Vallejo’s Participatory Budgeting website: http://www.pbvallejo.org/
Also, learn more about the history and rise of PB here with these resources: