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Can Democracy Work in Chicago?

Here's how our first experiment in "participatory budgeting" went.

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Few members of the City Council are more devoted to transparency and inclusive democracy than Alderman Joe Moore. Want proof? He's put his gritty, diverse 49th Ward on the map as the first—and, so far, only—community in the U.S. to practice participatory budgeting.

Developed in Brazil during the late 1980s to address huge discrepancies in living conditions—and now practiced in about 1,200 cities around the world—participatory budgeting means residents decide directly how some of their tax money will be spent. Moore learned about it in 2007 in Atlanta, at the inaugural U.S. Social Forum, a national meeting of progressives. (A second forum took place in Detroit this past June.) Determined to give it a try this year, he put all $1.3 million of his "menu money"—the annual allowance aldermen get to spend as they please on capital projects—where his mouth was. In April, 49th Ward residents chose 14 projects to spend that money on.

One of the ideas they approved was a plan to commission a dozen new murals for Rogers Park's rail underpasses, with the understanding that the public would also select the art. A request for proposals was issued in June, and within a month, according to the alderman's office, more than 200 mural designs were received. But when Rogers Park residents filed into the No Exit Cafe during the Glenwood Avenue Arts Festival (August 21-22) to cast their votes for the winning 12 designs, they found only 24 options on the ballot.

Amy Partidge, a Rogers Park resident with a key role in the mural project, says that "like everyone else" she was surprised at the small pool of candidates. "I thought it would be 50 or 60."

In spring 2009, on the advice of the Brown University-based nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project, Moore had invited Rogers Park leaders to join a steering committee. "Block clubs, churches, schools, mosques, you name it" were included, he says. "Working out of my office, they came up with a process for community residents to come together and decide on projects they wanted to propose to the voters."

That process called for a series of neighborhood brainstorming sessions, held last fall, and the formation of six subcommittees consisting of any locals interested enough to join. The plan to paint murals on the ward's grungy underpasses came out of the Art and Other Projects committee, headed by Partridge, which considered it a natural fit for a community already creating a "Mile of Murals" along the CTA tracks on Glenwood Avenue as part of an effort to turn itself into an arts destination. The proposal joined 35 others in balloting conducted at two sites and open to all 49th Ward residents "regardless of citizenship or voter registration status," as long as they were at least 16 years old. Voters could select up to eight initiatives apiece.

A total of 1,652 Rogers Parkers participated. Among the 14 winning ideas—each of which, Moore's office says, is now moving along at its own pace—were a dog park, community gardens, a street-resurfacing project, and ten solar-powered garbage compactors for Sheridan Road. Underpass murals came in fifth with 740 votes.

Sent out by the Art and Other Projects committee and Moore's staff working together, the request for proposals was limited to "Chicago-based" artists (defined as living and/or having studios in the city). The murals were to be painted only—no mosaics, etc—and the work would have to be finished this fall. Each artist would get a stipend of $5,500 to cover all costs, materials, and time. "It wasn't a lot of money" for such large murals, says Moore's chief of staff, Betsy Vandercook, so they didn't expect a huge response.

But the proposals came in "like a tsunami," recalls Vandercook. "By the middle of the second day, we knew we needed help" selecting them. She says she and Partridge worked the phones and e-mail looking for experts. The alderman's office ended up appointing a three-person jury whose members' identities were kept from the artists and voters. It consisted of two Department of Cultural Affairs staffers—special projects curator Nathan Mason and public art curator Allyson Murphy—and Lynn Basa, artist and author of The Artist's Guide to Public Art. Working for free under what one of them characterized as "kind of combat conditions," the trio cut 200-plus submissions down to the 24 up for consideration at No Exit.

Moore says that asking the public to choose among 200 possibilities would have been "inundating them with information. There's no way that you can ask every voter to wade through 200, so we needed to have some sort of vetting process and that's the process we came up with." But offering only 24 alternatives for 12 slots while touting the huge response raised the question, What did the other 180 or so submissions look like?

Two hundred is just about the number of works that will be competing for the popular vote when the Art Loop Open debuts downtown this fall. Regular folks will whittle that field down to ten semifinalists, then home in on three winners. A similar process has already worked for the ALO's inspiration, Grand Rapids's megabucks Art Prize, which had 1,262 entries last year.

Faced with an abundance of submissions, a less-than-perfect proposal process, and a short deadline, the selection panel had to determine exactly how many candidates would be on the ballot—a job, says Basa, for which they could've used a mathematician's help. "We tried to think through what would be manageable and keep people's eyes from glazing over," she says. "We asked ourselves, 'What's the ideal number?'"

Rogers Park artist and gallery owner Andy De La Rosa says he and other artists he's talked with were "shocked" at the small number of choices provided. Not that all 200 had to be on the ballot; many of the submissions were probably incomplete or impractical, he guesses. But if even a third were eliminated, that would still leave a roster of 130 or so for the public to consider, perhaps in a double round. De La Rosa was part of Art and Other Projects early on, before moving to another committee. He says one of the goals was to encourage neophyte muralists and give them a place to express themselves without a predetermined theme or agenda while also avoiding kumbaya-style neighborhood representations. According to Partridge, they issued a request for proposals rather than a request for qualifications because they wanted self-trained and emerging artists to participate.

But that priority was apparently never communicated to the panel. "If it was a choice between two good painters," Basa says, "we went with the one who had experience working on that scale, especially outdoors." De La Rosa notes that "there's been talk of getting all those that didn't make it together for an exhibit"—a salon des refusés, as another artist termed it.

Everyone I spoke with says the contest was a learning experience, and that there'll be improvements if they get a crack at something like it next year. "Public funds available for public deliberation is what appealed to me," says Partridge, who would like to see the concept expanded and reconfigured on the model of Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration—though she's aware that menu money can only be used for infrastructure improvements.

The concept of participatory budgeting is "awesome," says Sahrah Dermish, a longtime Rogers Park resident and veteran of the Art and Other Projects committee. "What I'm concerned about is it being used as a ploy, giving the community a false sense of power." Dermish says she threw herself into the mural project, recruiting artists with promises that it was "by the people, for the people," and that the selection process would be transparent. But she quit, she adds, when she learned the major decision making was being done by three anonymous judges.

"That was exactly what we tried to avoid," she says. "I wanted to apologize to the artists. And I wondered how much of this participatory budgeting was turning out to be a sham. At the very least, it requires better planning and execution."

Detail of Let's Bring the Birch Trees Back to Rogers Park
  • Detail of Let's Bring the Birch Trees Back to Rogers Park

Sham may be a little strong, but there are other issues to consider. For one, a public vote on a single ward's $1.3 million capital improvements allowance is a drop in the bucket when the city budget is more than $6 billion. There was no referendum, for instance, on the parking-meter lease deal—which Moore voted for, though he later claimed to regret it. As for participation, only about 1 percent of Rogers Park's 60,000 residents weighed in on the murals. The overwhelming favorite, Let's Bring the Birch Trees Back to Rogers Park—Joanna White's graceful rendition of a birch grove that once stood in the 49th Ward—got a total of 430 votes. That doesn't sound like significant participation, but Josh Lerner of the Participatory Budgeting Project says 1 percent "is considered rather high turnout," especially when the program is new. According to a United Nations primer on the subject, 1 to 15 percent is the general range. The concept has spread rapidly, but it's being tried in so many forms and contexts that comparative data is scarce and dicey.

Asked to comment on the level of participation, Moore responded by e-mail, "Given that the 49th Ward is the only political jurisdiction in the nation to ever have its residents determine by popular vote which artistic murals would receive public dollars, and given that the election received very little media attention as compared to 'traditional elections,' I thought the voter turnout was extremely impressive. My constituents, including those who did not vote, appreciated that they had an opportunity to decide how their tax dollars would be spent." He also noted that many of the ward's residents are children younger than 16, who weren't eligible to vote.

And then there's the matter of whether what the public chooses is necessarily the wisest choice. According to De La Rosa, the committee was thinking the murals would have a life span of about seven years and then be replaced by something fresh. If that's the case, taxpayers will be paying interest on the $84,000 cost of the project long after these murals have disappeared, since the menu money comes from 30-year general obligation bonds issued by the city.

Of course the road resurfacing won't last 30 years either. Artist and Rogers Park resident Lewis Lain, who wrote the mural project proposal and then dropped off the Art and Other Projects committee so he could submit his own design—which lost out in the final vote—says that what counts in the end is that "a lot of work was done, and 13 murals are going up in Rogers Park." Thirteen because a pair of ties that turned up when the votes were counted—for third and fourth place and 11th and 12th—were resolved on the spot when Moore made a unilateral decision that the ward could afford one more winner.

The 24 finalists can be viewed at Moore's website, ward49.com.   

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