By Alexandra Bjerg.
Californians don’t need to look far to see the critical need for infrastructure investment. Think of all those pesky potholes you drive over every day on the way to work while passing by the local school in disrepair and as you day dream about better public transportation while sitting in traffic caused by a broken water main.
With so much local infrastructure in dire need of repair, replacement or modernization, how would you spend $250,000 to improve your community? That’s exactly what one Long Beach City Councilmember is asking his constituents to decide.
Less than three months into his first term, Long Beach City Councilmember Rex Richardson is already proving he’s not afraid to shake up City Hall. In an effort to empower residents and foster greater transparency, Richardson is putting some budgetary decision directly into the hands of his constituents through an innovative form of direct democracy known as participatory budgeting (PB).
Practiced in more than 1,500 cities worldwide, PB is a democratic process where community members decide how to spend a portion of a public budget. Richardson is the first to implement the process in Southern California. Residents of Long Beach’s Ninth District will now have the opportunity to directly decide how to allocate $250,000 set aside for infrastructure improvements.
Over the next several months, residents will gather at community meetings to brainstorm, discuss, and evaluate ideas. With the help of city staff, volunteer budget delegates will then refine and transform these ideas into concrete project proposals to be presented to and eventually voted on by the community at a series of project expos resembling the format of a science fair.
Municipal elections in California are generally low turnout affairs. So it’s no wonder people are skeptical large swaths of voters would attend and participate in a series of budgetary meetings. We can’t expect people to come to us, so we’re going to them, Richardson said, acknowledging the importance of ensuring the process is inclusive and representative of the overall community. That’s why residents as young as 16 are allowed to participate.
The process is designed to improve not only civic engagement but also the level of civic education. Municipal budgeting is complex. With limited fiscal knowledge, the public frequently places unrealistic demands on politicians. Californians often call for better schools, road repairs, and improved public transportation, but a multitude of surveys show voters aren’t willing to pay more for these services.
PB is about more than simply handing over the reins, it’s about empowering the community to make informed fiscal decisions. “You learn government by doing government,” Richardson explained. By gaining a deeper understanding of how the city spends money and why, participants should come away from the PB process with the knowledge and skills required to hold their elected leaders accountable to results.
Watch the video to hear Councilmember Rex Richardson explain how participatory budgeting can change the relationship between citizens and government and improve transparency and accountability.