As much as $14 million in City of Cleveland spending could be put to neighborhood votes under a charter amendment proposed by advocates of the participatory budgeting process.
The People’s Budget Campaign announced Friday that it would start gathering the roughly 6,000 signatures needed to put the charter amendment on the November ballot. About three dozen people gathered at Public Square on Friday afternoon to launch the campaign and begin circulating petitions.
The group tried earlier this year to slate $5.5 million in federal stimulus funds for a participatory spending process, but the idea foundered amid Cleveland City Council opposition. Now the campaign wants to put a much larger version of the proposal to city voters.
“We, the people, we have to fight for what is right,” one supporter, Delores Gray, said at Public Square. “We have to fight for those funds, because they do belong to us. They belong to every last person that lives in Cleveland in each one of these neighborhoods.”
Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration backed earlier efforts to use a participatory process for American Rescue Plan Act dollars. But the mayor is holding off on endorsing the charter amendment. A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said Bibb is not weighing in on the proposal for now.
The idea is a significant break from the way the city typically spends taxpayer dollars. It is already drawing opposition from the leader of City Council.
“We, City Council, are the representatives of the People,” Council President Blaine Griffin said in a statement provided to Signal Cleveland. “It’s kind of disingenuous, dangerous, and misleading for a group of people to promote themselves as the only group of people that has a relationship and intimate and unique understanding of the needs of our community.”
Currently, council holds the final say on spending decisions of $50,000 or more. But the amendment would hand the purse strings for millions of dollars over a resident committee and neighborhood voting system.
The amendment would set up an 11-member committee to solicit spending ideas and direct the process of voting on them. When fully funded, the committee would oversee spending equal to 2% of Cleveland’s general operating budget, which this year comes out to about $14.2 million.
The language of the amendment does not spell out exactly how residents could propose and vote on neighborhood projects. Instead, the committee would be tasked with writing rules and setting up a voting system.
The committee, not the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, would oversee the voting. All Cleveland residents age 13 and up would be able to take part in the process. Voting would happen on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.
The mayor and City Council would each appoint five of the 10 committee members. The final member would be a city employee hired to help run the process. Committee members would be paid a $5,000 annual stipend that would increase with inflation. Members would be limited to two two-year terms on the committee.
Initially, the committee would help allocate an amount equal to 1% of the general fund, building up to 2% over several years. The money would be divided between neighborhood programs and capital projects.
Cleveland budgeted $710 million for the General Fund this year, with more than 70% of that money paying salaries and benefits for city workers.
Molly Martin, one of the campaign’s organizers, said it would be up to the administration to decide how to fund the participatory budgeting process. Money for capital projects could come from bond sale proceeds, for instance, rather than from the General Fund.
On Friday, supporters cast the charter amendment as a move toward direct democracy.
But Griffin, in his emailed statement, argued that council members are already doing the job of representing the public in spending decisions:
I am always eager to discuss the state of Democracy in Cleveland. This just gives us another opportunity to show our residents how we perform responsible government. We, City Council, are the representatives of the People. It’s kind of disingenuous, dangerous, and misleading for a group of people to promote themselves as the only group of people that has a relationship and intimate and unique understanding of the needs of our community. We hear from many constituents on a constant basis – and the decisions we make won’t make everyone happy, but ultimately, we believe they are made in the interest of all Clevelanders. Democracy is not always pretty, but our current process of allocating funds and making decisions that uphold our democratic values. I don’t think the proposal as delivered to us respects the people’s votes for their leaders. I’m disappointed by the decision to use General Funds for this project. Those funds will be diverted from safety and service and could throw our budget into disarray. Once again, City Council are the representatives of the people, duly elected by our neighbors and community.
Gray – a neighborhood activist who happens to share a name with a former council member – said participatory budgeting could be a help, rather than a hindrance, to City Council.
“They should have all of us as layers-on for them in the community for things that they may not even know,” she said.