More on Participatory Budgeting

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Antonnet Johnson and Choosing the Proposals

On January 11th at 11am, I met with Antonnet Johnson who is acting as a budget delegate in the 35th City Council District which Laurie Cumbo represents. I was especially interested to meet with Antonnet because she has a fellowship with an organization called the Participatory Budgeting Project. This non-profit researches, advocates and provides technical assistance for the participatory budgeting process in cities and schools throughout the US. Antonnet has been studying how PB works for students. In New York City – and beyond – schools have started using PB as way for students to develop projects at their schools. Antonnet pointed out that students have their own separate viewpoints on the world which no one else can thoroughly grasp – not teachers, not parents, not administrators. Antonnet believes this initiative for students is getting them to think about what it is they want to do to improve their schools. It is turning vague complaints and nagging concerns into concrete political proposals that they can convey to other students and people in general.

I asked Antonnet how she came to be a budget delegate in Brooklyn. Her story begins in Arizona where she spent most but not all of her childhood. She went to the University of Arizona where she was an English Major. After graduating, she decided she wanted to be a writing teacher and went to Purdue to get a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. She was very interested in issues related to communication design and impact and began to cast about for ways to use her degree beyond teaching. She eventually got the idea that non-profits could use the skills and knowledge she had developed, and that led to the two-year fellowship with the Participatory Budgeting Project. Living in Brooklyn has mostly been a good experience for Antonnet; she lives in Crown Heights and loves all the things there are to do – restaurants, coffee houses, entertainment and the parks, but there are drawbacks. One is that she has two dogs, and she wishes they were not caged up so much. She takes them for walks in the park, but she does not go in the early morning or late at night, so she has to keep them on a leash. One of them is not faring well, and she wishes she lived somewhere where her dogs could have more freedom. Another problem is being far away from her family back in Arizona. Antonnet saw them on the holidays, but it is an expensive trip and a long way to go.

This is Antonnet's first time with PB, a process of which she is totally in favor. However, as someone studying it as well as participating, she is very much interested in how to make it stronger. She created a proposal to fix the sidewalk at the apex of the two streets that form McNair Park, Classon Ave. and Washington Ave. It is an idea in which she has a personal interest – she walked the sidewalk a few times a week on the way to physical therapy for a foot injury. She found it very dangerous especially in the winter when holes filled with water freeze over.. The proposal went to the agencies for vetting, but it was not clear who should consider it, the Parks Dept. or the Dept of Transportation. Eventually what came back was that it was not expensive enough. PB guidelines demand that every proposal cost at least $35,000 to be considered. Given her experience Antonnet has some ideas for improving the process. First, she wishes there was a way of keeping everyone up-to-date even if they miss a meeting. Antonnet was unable to attend one meeting due to other obligations. Volunteers who work and have busy schedules cannot be sure of coming to all meetings, and it is important they are able to find out what's going on in order to remain involved. Second, she wishes there had been more meetings so that proposals could be discussed and refined; she feels her proposal could have been improved. There were a total of three meetings, one to explain the process, another to meet the agencies and a third which was a chaotic conference call, hard to follow and not at all an occasion to think about and improve proposals. A fourth meeting was canceled. Thus, she made her proposal and it was turned down, and that was that. A third point she made is that the committee she worked on had logistical problems. The chair struggled valiantly with the position, but she was away on vacation for a while during the time the proposals were being made. So instead of talking about the proposals, all that could be done was to put them in a Google document to be forwarded to Jason Hur, who is handling PB for Cumbo. This is the eighth time Cumbo's office has done PB, but it is the first time for Jason. So the lack of experience and clear guidelines at all levels prevented people from thoroughly understanding the process and making their proposals as strong as possible. Fuller communication would have helped.

Antonnet sees PB as an incredible opportunity to engage in collaborative decision-making around the needs of her community, which is why she is focused on creating tools and resources to strengthen the process . When her fellowship runs out, Antonnet is uncertain what comes next. She will likely continue to do research and design work; as long as she is in New York she'll be following the growth of Participatory Budgeting.

Meanwhile the process in the 35th District is moving ahead. At meeting on January 24th Jason Hur presented a list of 13 proposals that had survived thus far in the process. He asked those present to vote on them chosing ten using a system of weighted voting so the top choice would get 10 votes and each following one a vote less down to one. He said the winners would be announced on the 28th. On the 29th he let it be known that all 13 would be on the ballot though there were issues of eligibility with some that still needed to be resolved. Thus, the proposal by Nostrand Avenue Improvement Association has made it over another hurdle. It will appear on the ballot for the vote in late March and early April. In early March there will be a meeting to make posters for the various project. There will be an expo during which all the projects on the ballot will be presented March 30th to 31th followed by roughly a week of voting during the beginning of April.

Next month, I will provide another update on the process of Participatory Budgeting in Laurie Cumbo's Council District, the 35th.

– John DeWind

UpdatesJonathan Judge