The foes of participatory budgeting, speaking lightning fast during a debate Tuesday evening, said a plan to give citizens direct control over a portion of the budget would drain Cleveland’s coffers and open the doors to corruption. 

The supporters, taking their time, asked the audience to think of neighbors who deserve more of a say in a City Hall that has let them down. 

Both sides needled their opponents in heated cross-examinations as the audience cheered, booed – and hollered when speakers strayed from debate rules. 

The debate was organized by Cleveland City Council, which opposes a charter amendment that would set aside 2% of the city’s regular budget, or about $14 million, to be directed by citizens. The amendment appears on the November ballot as Issue 38.

The debate pitted two organizers of the People’s Budget Cleveland campaign against two opponents. It drew a crowd that packed the first floor of the Little Theater at Cleveland Public Auditorium. 

The event resembled a highly-structured school debate, with the teams arguing opposing sides of an agreed-upon resolution: that the benefits of participatory budgeting outweigh the harms. Moderating the showdown was Carrie Cofer, who coaches debaters at Rhodes High School and Hathaway Brown. 

If passed, the charter amendment would set aside millions in taxpayer dollars to be spent based on a series of neighborhood votes, overseen by a committee of city appointees. 

Issue 38 organizer Jonathan Welle said that when the campaign told people the charter amendment concerned 2% of the budget, people asked: why not more? 

“It is already your money,” Welle said. “You should have a say in how it gets spent.”

Ward 13 Council Member Kris Harsh accused his opponents of basing their arguments purely on an emotional appeal. 

“They hope you’ll be so enraged, you vote on this disastrous handout to their friends,” Harsh said. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to mortgage your future to make a handful of activists happy.”

Here are four takeaways from the debate. 

Jonathan Welle, an organizers of the People's Budget Cleveland committee, argues for Issue 38 at a debate in the Little Theater of the city's public auditorium.
Jonathan Welle, an organizers of the People’s Budget Cleveland committee, argues for Issue 38 at a debate in the Little Theater of the city’s public auditorium. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

1. ‘No’ side played it like a college-style debate; ‘Yes’ side played to voters’ hopes and frustrations

Robyn Kaltenbach, a Ward 13 resident who joined Harsh on the ‘no’ side, raced through a litany of charges against Issue 38. It would cost too much money, rely on a flawed process, weaken city unions’ bargaining positions and make millions of dollars vulnerable to corruption, she said. 

She numbered her major points – called “contentions” in debate terminology – and labeled subpoints with letters, adhering to the traditional format of academic-style debate. 

“The way PB is being proposed in our great city is flawed, doomed to fail, will reach some people at the expense of others and will further fragment our struggling community,” she said. “If you agree with any of the reasons I just outlined – just one of them – then you must vote no on Issue 38 in November.” 

Opponents of the amendment have accused supporters of relying on emotional arguments. But the ‘Yes’ side leaned into its appeal to voters’ feelings. 

“This isn’t about the money.This is about relationships with billionaires and developers, and backroom deals.” 

People’s Budget Cleveland organizer Aleena Starks

Issue 38 supporter Aleena Starks opened with stories about her own family – her mother, who was a teacher, and her father, who carried a briefcase to high school. Later, Welle told a story about a friend from church named Rhonda, who he said works hard for neighbors despite a recent diabetic emergency. 

Welle said Issue 38 would amplify her work, and Starks said Clevelanders know what they’re voting for.

“Cleveland has a full, rich history of community, family and culture that I am honored to grow,” Starks said. “But tonight, it’s hard not to feel like the folks that we voted for don’t want to see the people win. But Cleveland deserves to win.” 

2. Opponents zeroed in on PB process

Issue 38 places an 11-member committee in charge of distributing money based on the results of a series of neighborhood elections. But the amendment language doesn’t spell out how that election would be run. 

Welle has said that the vagueness in the amendment was intentional, giving the committee latitude to design and refine the process. Harsh and Kaltenbach hammered away at what they saw as a weakness in the ballot issue. 

How, they asked, would Cleveland run an election in which voters could be as young as 13? And how can a vote not run by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections be protected against influence-peddling or fraud? 

Harsh waved a copy of the amendment and cited his problems with its language. He argued that ultimately the committee – not the voters – called the shots on the People’s Budget Fund. 

“The people do not control this money,” he said. “The steering committee does. We cannot forget that.” 

Ward 13 resident Robyn Kaltenbach argues against participatory budgeting.
Ward 13 resident Robyn Kaltenbach argues against participatory budgeting. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

Welle has told Signal Cleveland that the city still could require committee appointees to spend money according to the voters’ wishes, even if the charter amendment language doesn’t specify that. 

To questions about registering voters under 18, Welle and Starks said that parents could submit proof on behalf of their children, or the city could rely on school enrollment lists. If the measure passes, the city will work to balance voter access and security, Welle said. 

Opponents have questioned whether the city can afford to set $14 million aside. Starks offered some possible sources of money:

There’s Cleveland’s income from casino revenue taxes, which produced about $13 million for the city last year. Currently that money is split between the city General Fund and council members’ discretionary funds. 

The city will also soon pay off the remainder of its late-1990s debt for constructing Browns Stadium, potentially freeing up money for other uses – although the fate of team lease negotiations is still up in the air. 

3. Supporters put Cleveland City Council on the ballot

Opponents lodged objections about an ill-defined voting process and the intricacies of capital budgeting. But Starks turned those complaints on their head. 

“The question that continues to come to mind is, what is Cleveland City Council scared of?” she said. 

The Issue 38 backers cast council as a short-sighted defender of the status quo. Council, Starks said, was working hard to keep voters quiet. 

“PB walked into City Hall, quite frankly, with a hand grenade, and acted shocked when City Council insisted on protecting the people who elected us.”

Ward 13 Council Member Kris Harsh

Starks and Welle pointed several times to Cleveland’s longstanding agreement to pay for repairs at Browns stadium, defining the election as one of “streets over stadiums.” 

Even if Issue 38 passes, the city would still be contractually obligated to spend money on the professional sports facilities. But the supporters used the example to argue that the city had misplaced its priorities. 

“This isn’t about the money,” Starks said of council’s opposition to Issue 38. “This is about relationships with billionaires and developers, and backroom deals.” 

Harsh stuck up for City Council. 

“Since this is about, seemingly, council, let’s talk about council,” he said. 

Look at council’s Richard Starr, he said – a neighborhood activist who came up through the Boys and Girls Club and defeated an appointed incumbent in Ward 5. But after Starr was sworn in as a council member, he was demonized like the rest of his colleagues, Harsh said. 

“The next day, in the eyes of some, he became an enemy of the people,” he said. 

When council said no to a $5.5 million participatory budgeting pilot program, Harsh said, it was because the body was juggling so many other needs – like housing and forgiving medical debt.

“PB walked into City Hall, quite frankly, with a hand grenade, and acted shocked when City Council insisted on protecting the people who elected us,” he said.

People's Budget Cleveland campaign organizer Aleena Starks makes the case for Issue 38 in a downtown debate.
People’s Budget Cleveland campaign organizer Aleena Starks makes the case for Issue 38 in a downtown debate. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

4. Columbus looms in the background

Hours before the skirmish in the Little Theater, a different debate unfolded in Columbus. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would seemingly stop Issue 38 in its tracks by banning participatory budgeting statewide. 

Republican state Sen. Jerry Cirino introduced the measure, which appeared to have support from Democratic state Sen. Bill DiMora, the ranking member of the Senate’s government committee. 

People’s Budget campaign supporters traveled to Columbus to speak against the bill. Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration, which is against Issue 38, also submitted testimony against the proposed state law. The Greater Cleveland Partnership – the region’s chamber of commerce – backs the law banning participatory budgeting. 

The measure is scheduled for another committee hearing in Columbus on Wednesday.

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, 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.