In a city where budget opacity is the norm – including a billion-dollar TIF program operated with minimal public disclosure  – one ward will be the first locality in the U.S. to undertake the cutting-edge “good governance” practice of participatory budgeting.
At nine neighborhood assemblies starting tomorrow night (Tuesday, November 3, at St. Margaret Mary Church, 7311 N. Claremont), residents of the 49th Ward will elect community representatives to begin the process of allocating infrastructure funds from next year’s $1.4 million aldermanic menu program.
In further neighborhood meetings and workshops over coming months, community representatives will develop proposals for infrastructure projects, and next spring residents will meet in a ward assembly to vote on an infrastructure budget.
The process got started last spring when Ald. Joe Moore called together leaders of 50 community groups, who formed a steering committee to develop the planning process.
“Hopefully this is a start toward a far more transparent process,” said Jamiko Rose, executive director of the Organization of the North East, who chairs the steering committee.
Even among the activists who met last spring, the aldermanic menu program was not well known, she said. “Most people don’t even know this money exists.”
Under the aldermanic menu program, each alderman gets a pot of money to spend on streets, alleys, curbs, and lighting – or on whatever the alderman wants. In a 2004 report  on the program, the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group said there was no public disclosure of aldermanic menu spending, little to no public participation in selection of projects, and no evaluation of their impact. The group called for ward-by-ward reporting on aldermanic menu spending along with increased public participation.
With the city’s overall infrastructure spending on neighborhoods decline, the aldermanic menu program accounted for about half of all such spending in neighborhoods from 1996 to 2002, according to NCBG.
First developed in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegro after the Workers Party won elections there, participatory budgeting allows residents to decide how public funds will be allocated. In Porto Alegro, some 50,000 residents participate annually in allocating about a fifth of the city’s budget, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project, which is advising the 49th Ward.
The PB Project provides technical assistance to cities around the world, among an estimated 1,200 that have adopted the technique. Britain is currently incorporating participatory budgeting in all its municipalities, according to the group’s website, and the UN has listed it as a “best practice” in democratic governance.
One of the PB Project founders who is advising the 49th Ward effort, Gianpaolo Baiocchi, is a Brown University professor and author of Militants and Citizens , a book on participatory democracy in Porto Alegro.
“When I first heard of the concept of participatory budgeting, I thought it was a perfect fit for my neighborhood, which is filled with activists and people who are used to being involved in the community process and who believe in democracy,” Moore told the Watson Institute  at Brown earlier this year.
“I’m really looking forward to a successful experiment that will show my colleagues on the City Council…that you can trust people to make these decisions,” he said.
Moore’s website already provides some information on infrastructure projects (not including dollar amounts) – though with $100 million in projects over the past four years claimed, the aldermanic menu program is a small portion of spending in the ward. Much of the rest comes from several TIF districts in the ward.
Earlier this year, after the Chicago Park District began charging for parking along the lakefront, Moore used about $80,000 from his aldermanic menu money to subsidize free overnight parking in lakefront lots over the next three years.
A second neighborhood assembly is planned for Wednesday, November 4, at Pottawattomie Park’s fieldhouse, 7340 N. Rogers, with seven more planned in the next month (full schedule ).