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Radical Democracy or Managed Democracy: The Grand Rapids Participatory Budgeting Pilot Project

June 8, 2021

Last week, the City of Grand Rapids announced that it was going to pilot a participatory budgeting project, using some of the money the city received from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act. 

It is instructive that the City of Grand Rapids will be piloting this project just weeks after they received several hundred calls from the community to put the brakes on voting for the 2022 City Budget and allow the community to be involved in a participatory budgeting process to make decisions on how they want their tax dollars spent.

The City’s announcement last week stated that there would be $2 million dollars that residents would have a say in, although the money is not being equally distributed. There will be $1 million going to the Third Ward, $600,000 going to the First Ward and $400,000 to the Second Ward.

Considering the dismissive response that Defund the GRPD received with their recent demand to use a participatory budgeting process, there is sufficient reason to be skeptical about how genuine the City of Grand Rapids will be with giving the public a say in how to use federal funds in the City’s three wards. Here are a few of those reasons for skepticism:

  1. The City of Grand Rapids has pre-determined the parameters for how the money can be spent in this participatory budgeting process. People will be able to pitch proposals, but they must fall under the following factors – Violence Reduction, Public Safety Co-Response, Housing Affordability, Broadband Access and Economic Impacts from COVID. In addition to pre-determined categories, what exactly does the City mean by violence reduction? Does that mean just overt violence, like gun violence, or are they open to considering proposals that take on structural violence, like the violence of poverty or racism?
  2. The City is also forming three steering committees (one for each city ward) and these steering committees with be made up of two residents appointed by Commissioners from that ward. As we have seen in other instances, elected leaders often will pick people who will not challenge structural problems, and in fact, will often maintain the status quo. Last month we looked at this very issue, where City Officials appointed residents to make decisions in numerous city-created entities, but those appoints disproportionately represent corporate interests and/or the status quo.
  3. Once the steering committees are created residents will be able to pitch ideas about how to use the money during both virtual and in person meetings, but the timeline for this process is very short, according to what MLive wrote. “Tentatively, residents should be able to pitch ideas and give feedback during in-person and virtual public engagement starting sometime after June 12 and lasting until July 18.” This means that people will have a month to come up with ideas, which is a very short amount of time. In addition to the short time frame, some people will be taking time off for vacation, while others will be continuing to struggle to survive. The City’s track record for community engagement is weak and what input there is, often comes with those who carry a great deal of privilege – economic, racial and gender privilege.
  4. A fourth, and final, reason for skepticism on the City participatory budgeting pilot project, is that they already want to frame their decision to do this as allowing people in Grand Rapids to have a say in larger portions of money than what other cities are doing. However, this misses the point of what Participatory Budgeting is all about and how it was created. The Participatory Budgeting Movement began in Brazil in the 1990s as a radical democracy initiative by the leftist Worker’s Party. The whole point of Participatory Budgeting is to shift from representative democracy to more direct democracy, where people get to decide how they want their tax money spent. In addition, Participatory Budgeting increases involvement in politics by civil society, creates more transparency, more accountability and it leads to more possibilities for social transformation.

We will certainly be following this process as it develops and we will continue to make posts once the steering committee people have been named and once we know more about how and when people will be able to have a say in this participatory budgeting pilot project. However, given the recent history of dismissing the Defund the GRPD demand around Participatory Budgeting, this writer remains skeptical that Grand Rapids City officials will really allow for radical democracy to be practiced in this city. 

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