Let’s rebuild trust in government with participatory budgeting in Atlanta
By Guest Columnist AMIR FAROKHI, who represents District 2 on the Atlanta City Council
Public trust in government is historically low. At a time when voting rights are under attack, transparency the exception, and inaction on critical issues the frustrating norm, cynicism about government is at fever pitch. Yet, democratic government is well placed to reestablish public trust; city government, even more so. More nimble and less partisan than any other level of government, City Hall is where residents should have the most direct input.
Over the last decade, we have watched our population rise and skyline thicken. Our growth is often marked by mega-projects: Underground Atlanta, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Ponce City Market, the Gulch, and many new apartments and skyscrapers.
Our city has worthy ambitions of being far more than just a regional capital. Our success and influence are a source of great pride. Yet, it also creates anxiety. Will our city have a place for everyone? Can we balance growth with livability and mobility? Are elected officials listening?
Much public anxiety stems from a cardinal sin we seem to commit regularly: Investing public dollars without transparency, inclusion, or responsiveness to public priorities.
For this reason, residents feel helpless and frustrated about the way their money is being spent. We arrive at the understandable yet false choice that growth and inclusion are mutually exclusive; that we pursue the grand at the expense of the granular.
Now is the perfect time to correct that misguided notion. How can Atlanta City Hall work to reestablish public trust in government? By asking residents to directly shape the city; connecting residents’ ideas with action at City Hall. It’s time that we bring “participatory budgeting” to Atlanta.
PB can be implemented in a number of ways, but the concept is simple:
- The city sets aside a percentage of its budget for capital improvement projects;
- Residents propose highly localized ideas on how best to spend it (e.g., a new pocket park, a playground for physically-impaired kids, a refurbished bike lane);
- Residents vote on their favorite proposals;
- Within the year, construction/implementation starts on the winning projects.
PB is the most direct way to give residents a say in how tax dollars are spent. This isn’t a new concept. PB programs exist in Madrid, Paris, Taipei, Chicago, Greensboro, New York City, Seattle, and many, many, more cities. We can, and should, do it too.
What would it look like in Atlanta? Perhaps something like this:
First, the city agrees to set aside a certain amount of its annual budget for the program. Let’s say 2 percent in Year 1. In the city’s FY2019 budget, for the fiscal year that started July 1, 2018, 2 percent would have amounted to $13.2 million.
Second, the money would be divided among our 12 council districts so that residents can propose localized projects. Perhaps, like Madrid, we value equity and allocate more for districts with higher need and fewer resources.
Third, we collect ideas. All are welcome. Anyone, of any age, who resides in the city can submit a proposal. This would happen online and offline. We will build a website for submissions and, like Paris, city staff could take this opportunity to people: Cards could be handed out and tables set up at neighborhood and NPU meetings, MARTA stations, festivals, and Atlanta Public Schools for input.
PB dollars can be spent on one big idea or a bundle of smaller ones. No idea is too small.
Next, comes the vetting process. A list of possible projects for each district would be compiled. Some lists might have 10, some might have 100. The city would help filter what is feasible, safe, and legal, but the city could not remove a proposal just because it doesn’t like it.
Finally, comes the vote! This, too, would occur online and offline. Residents could vote in either the council district where they reside or the one where they work. Voting could be as simple as, “vote on your top three projects”. Alternatively, we could gamify voting and give each voter a certain sum of “money” to allocate among the possible projects. There won’t be enough money for all of the projects. Residents would get to make the same hard choices as government.
This whole process, from ideation to construction, can be completed in less than two years. We’d repeat it annually.
This is bottom-up policymaking at its finest. Recently, I introduced legislation to set aside 2 percent of the city’s general fund by 2022 for a participatory budget program. I’ll be looking for partners at the city to make this a reality. Hopefully, we can pilot the idea at a lesser amount in 2019, prove the model, and then scale it citywide by 2022.
PB in Atlanta would be a leap forward. It would show that even as we are a city that pursues big, aspirational projects, so too will we be a city that listens, empowers our residents, and attends to the details that make our lives fuller, safer, and better.
That’s the Atlanta I want to help grow and be a part of. A city with residents who believe in their government because it is responsive, accessible, and executes. What should we call it? “You Decide, Atlanta!”
Note to readers: In addition to representing neighborhoods including Downtown, Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park, Poncey-Highland, and Candler Park, Amir Farokhi was a co-founder and executive director of the non-partisan, statewide nonprofit GeorgiaForward, and is a former chief operating officer of College Advising Corps, a national education non-profit that helps low-income students attend college.