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Which Grand Rapids residents will get to decide how to spend $2 million in the City’s Participatory Budgeting project?

November 3, 2021

It has been roughly 5 months since the City of Grand Rapids announced that residents will be able to have a more direct say in how to spend $2 million. 

In June, the City of Grand Rapids announced it would begin a participatory budgeting pilot project, using $2 million in funds, money from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act.

At that time, we asked the question of whether this process would be a way to practice radical democracy or would it simply be another form of managed democracy. We pointed out that the funding already has some pre-determined parameters for how it could be used, that City Commissioners would appoint 2 representatives from each ward to act as steering committee members, and a short timeline.

In August, we wrote a follow up story about what sort of progress the project members had made. We noted that the City staff who were involved in the project admitted that the initial timeline was grossly in adequate and that in order for there to be a participatory budgeting process it would take time. We also noted that there wasn’t any consensus amongst City Commissioners on what the pilot project would ultimately look like. For instance, during the August Commission discussion, the issue of how to get people to participate came up. It was argued that not only is it critical to have people participate, but to have people who are not normally engaged to participate in the decision making. 

The City now has a more realistic timeline, with public input beginning in January of 2022, project proposals developed in February/March, and project voting in April of 2022. 

However, the big issue is still centered around the matter of who is actively being recruited to participate and what plans does the City have to get substantial participation? 

The Grand Rapids Business Journal ran a story about the project on November 1st, but there hasn’t been lots of other commercial media coverage, now that the timeline has been firmed up. Plus, the Business Journal generally isn’t read by people who are the most marginalized in the community, people you want input from.

The City of Grand Rapids has online information about the Participatory Budgeting project, along with ways for people to sign up to be involved. The City also has a Facebook page specifically for this project, but the City has not shared their plans for how to actively recruit people to be involved in the decision making process with this money. Will the City of Grand Rapids provide a stipend to people for their participation, particularly for those whose voices are the most marginalized in this city? Will there be transportation provided, child care, food and other incentives that would demonstrate to people how committed the City is to getting as much input as possible? On the City’s Facebook page for this project, they are asking people to share the information, but there is no additional information or plan on how to get people involved.

On last thing to point out about this project it the fact that the timeline has people voting on the proposed project ideas in April, with submitted proposals going to the City Commission for approval in May/June 2022. This raises two question for me. First, the City of Grand Rapids usually has public hearings around the same time for the City’s Budget. Will the timing of the participatory budgeting process divert attention away from the larger City Budget process for residents and will the City promote public input on the annual budget on top of the participatory budgeting pilot project? The second issue gets to the question of who ultimately decides. It seems that City Commissioners will either approve or reject proposed projects. Why not let the public vote on the proposals for each city ward, instead of giving all the power to commissioners? Again, do we want managed democracy or a more radical democracy?

For more insight into radical municipal politics, we encourage our readers to check out the book, Fearless Cities: A Guide to the Global Municipalist Movement, along with a fairly recent report on how Participatory Budgeting is spreading across the world.

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