By Bruce Checefsky

Ward 13 Councilman Kris Harsh shook his head in disbelief while PB CLE Organizer Jonathan Welle called on city council members to support funding for participatory budgeting. Welle spoke on behalf of PB CLE during the public comments portion at the Jan. 9 council meeting.

Mayor Bibb proposed legislation under a pilot participatory budgeting program intended to engage historically underrepresented and marginalized communities in the further selection and funding of projects within and by the city. The plan calls for more than $500,000 from the City’s Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (ARPA) to cover initial administrative costs.

“Opposing a people’s budget means looking residents in the eye and telling them that they don’t deserve a vote on how to spend public money,” said Welle.

Harsh responded to his public comments in an email to the paper by saying that while community organizing is essential, the PB CLE coalition has put the cart in front of the horse.

“I was an activist and organizer for two decades. Whenever you can organize people around issues that matter to them and push reforms you are doing good work. The problem with Participatory Budgeting is that they have put the cart in front of the horse. Instead of organizing the community and advocating for reforms, they are demanding money so that they can organize the community. This demand comes on the premise that the government does not adequately represent the voters.

“This statement [by Johnathan Welle] is asinine and feeds into the same anti-government sentiment that right-wing activists have been using for decades to undermine our institutions of democracy. The idea that saying ‘no’ to a blanket request for $5 million is itself a rebuke of citizen involvement in spending is Orwellian. The whole campaign for participatory budgeting is less democratic than our current system. This group wants tax money but won’t say what for. They claim to represent ‘the people’ but there are only a few dozen of them. The premise of their entire argument is based on the same Reaganesque concept that government itself is the problem. Then they claim that this is going to encourage more participation in local elections! You cannot tell people ‘government is a failure, go vote’ with a straight face. They are leaning into shallow analysis and emotional triggers in the name of funding. Ultimately, the proposal Mayor Bibb introduced on Monday night will first disburse $510,000 to a local non-profit for staff and salary before even a single dollar in public spending is discussed. Participatory budgeting might be a lot of things, but it is not a transparent or democratic use of public funds.”

Robin Brown (pictured in plaid coat), a PB CLE founding member and the founder of Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead, said she would like to see the money used to support lead paint poisoning issues.

“[We] come up with sustainable ideas that we sit at our kitchen table thinking about . . . and [we come] up with an answer, but [we don’t have] the resources,” said Brown. “This is a way we can start having the resources.”

“As it has been presented to date, no!” said Ward 8 Councilman Michael D. Polensek, when asked if he would vote in favor of participatory budgeting. “It is set up to cause divisions in our neighborhoods! Not good! I came into the council as a community activist! Now we have to pay folks to attend or organize community meetings, give me a break!”

PB CLE organizers expect to see the results of their advocacy and organizing by late February or March of this year.

This article first appeared in the Plain Press.