Residents holding a sign that says "People's Budget" outside of Cleveland City Hall.
Supporters of participatory budgeting hold a sign that says "People's Budget" outside of Cleveland City Hall on Jan. 9 Credit: Kenyatta Crisp for Signal Cleveland

Cleveland City Council’s Finance Committee voted on Monday to pause Mayor Justin Bibb’s proposal to fund a participatory budgeting process for spending federal stimulus money.

But some council members suggested they were open to resuscitating the idea as a civics program for students. 

Bibb’s legislation would have spent $510,000 organizing public meetings and paying a steering committee to guide how the city distributes $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars.  

Council President Blaine Griffin, who opposed the proposal, said he brought it up for a hearing in order to give the Bibb administration and proponents a chance to make their case. But he said that council members were already doing the work of representing and balancing residents’ budgetary interests. 

“Many of us around the table in some shape form or fashion have been an organizer, and we appreciate community engagement,” Griffin said. “However we take our responsibility of governing very, very seriously.”

He added, “The concept that we don’t represent the people, to me, is asinine. All I do is people, all day every day.”

Austin Davis, an attorney who works in the mayor’s office, presented the proposal for the administration. With him were Erika Anthony of Cleveland VOTES, which would help administer the program, and participatory budgeting organizers Molly Martin and Jennifer Lumpkin.  

They told council members that they weren’t looking to replace council, but to complement it. 

“None of the members of this coalition are coming before you to say you’re not doing your job,” Anthony said. “We are saying we want to help you further expand, excite, really think about how we can really bring together a city that is connected.”

Four council members cosponsored the mayor’s idea. At Tuesday afternoon’s committee meeting, they pitched the idea as a way to bring more people into Cleveland’s democratic process. 

“These are rare and precious ARPA dollars, but I think that this is a rare opportunity to try a new approach to democracy and engagement,” said one cosponsor, Ward 15 Council Member Jenny Spencer.

But many council members raised questions about the proposal. They questioned the necessity of paying steering committee members. They also expressed doubt that the process would turn around Cleveland’s low voter turnout. 

Griffin allowed a local attorney named Kevin Cronin to offer public comment on the idea at the committee table. Cronin questioned whether the idea was sustainable if participants supported projects requiring year-over-year funding.  

“It’s relatively easy to decide how to allocate free money,” Cronin said. “But free money is not going to happen again.”

Griffin told supporters of participatory budgeting that he’d like to see the proposal refocused on high schoolers.

Nick Castele, Government Reporter

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio, where he has 10 years' experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. Last year he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.