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‘Your Voice, Your Choice’ Puts Fund Distribution In Public Hands

by Kirby Lindsay Laney, posted 12 June 2017

 

Please vote a 'Your Voice, Your Choice' ballot this month!

Please vote a ‘Your Voice, Your Choice’ ballot this month!

In Fremont we are always seeking more self-direction and community based action to creatively solve community problems.  Historically, we’ve done best when we, as neighbors, choose our own solutions.  Now the City of Seattle has created a new way for us, as citizens, to direct funding for civic projects.

This year the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods (DON) launched a new ‘Participatory Budgeting’ initiative, to allow Seattleites more voice in how funding is distributed.

From now through June 30th, every resident has an opportunity to vote on distribution of $2 million in City-funds for streets and parks projects.  This is the final step of public involvement in a process that began a few months ago, to identify needs within our communities, to brainstorm solutions, and now to allow the whole citizenry (all Seattle residents, ages 11 and up, can vote) to decide which three of the recommended projects should be funded.

The ‘Participatory Budgeting’ model being used by the City is called ‘Your Voice, Your Choice’ (YVYC) and is currently being tried out, for the first time, to decide the distribution of the DON Park & Street Fund.  Each of the seven City Council Districts has been given $285,000 to spend on improvements, with members of each districts voting on the ones they most want implemented in 2018.

The ‘Participatory Budgeting’ Process

DON staffer, and Youth Engagement Strategic Advisor, Jenny Frankl has been leading the ‘Participatory Budgeting’ effort, engaging community members in ‘Your Voice, Your Choice’.  She’s held public meetings in all seven districts, inviting neighbors of every age, race, income level, religion, gender and orientation to gather to discuss ideas about improvements needed.  The neighbors shared, and listened, and Frankl assembled their suggestions for review by Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Parks & Recreation.

Now, Frankl hopes those neighbors – and everyone else who couldn’t attend the gathering sessions – vote for the projects they give priority.  ‘Participatory Budgeting’ is an effort to be more inclusive and respectful of the wishes of Seattle residents, and to determine what changes we need in our neighborhoods decided democratically.

Frankl led this effort, developing it from a project she led last year to engage our youth, called ‘Youth Voice, Youth Choice’.  Through a series of meetings last year, for youth ages 11 – 25, participants decided how to spend $700,000 of public money.  “It was the same model,” Frankl explained, “the youth talked, voted and their ideas are in implementation.”

With the Youth initiative, the young people were asked, and encouraged, and most did attend the whole series of discussions, held over 10 weeks.  With ‘Your Voice, Your Choice,’ some participants attended every meeting and some only came once, with fewer meetings.

“It’s very time intensive,” Frankl allowed about ‘Participatory Budgeting’, as it requires citizens take the time to work with others and strive for solutions.  “We’ve tried to be more inclusive,” Frankl explained, by allowing everyone to attend as much as they can, or as little.  “We’re trying to find that balance.  We want people to feel they can give input,” while knowing that some people might be unable to give time, or bandwidth, to a long process.

‘Your Voice, Your Choice’ seeks to give everyone an opportunity to be involved, rather than leaving all decisions to elected officials and bureaucrats who work for us but often have less of an investment in the decision.  YVYC gives the general population a chance to step inside the process and get hands on.

The ‘Four Main Ingredients’

‘Participatory Budgeting’ is a world-wide model originally introduced in 1989 in Brazil.  Essentially, this process allows public involvement in determining how public funds get spent.  For this first effort, DON decided to address the Street & Parks Fund, as ‘participatory budgeting’ has been found to work best on smaller scale projects, that commit a small portion of the budget.

‘Your Voice, Your Choice’ has four major markers to hit to meet the ‘Participatory Budgeting’ model.  The “four main ingredients,” as Frankl described them, are:

  1. Idea Collection – opening this to the public for input, and brainstorming, for suggestions.
  2. Project Development – getting the free flow of ideas and dreams down to concrete plans and manageable outcomes.  This includes consideration of feasibility and negotiating those projects that might be very similar, or competing, such as requests for a crosswalk at almost, but not entirely, the same location.
  3. Voting – usually done in a quick spurt, this time the City has chosen to give us nearly a month (from June 3rd – 30th,) to allow more time to get the word out and collect ‘ballots.’  Votes are open, but voters will choose to vote only for projects in a single district (of the seven council districts.)
  4. Implementation – the City promises to implement projects voted upon, from those suggested, and refined, by the public process.

In-between steps 2 and 3, the City does step in – as the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Parks & Recreation – to do feasibility studies to determine if suggested projects can be done, if they are not already planned and funded, and if they can be completed with the funds available.

Unfortunately, one major Fremont project requested during the public ‘Your Voice, Your Choice’ meetings – a crosswalk on N 36th Street at 1st Ave NW – was removed from the ballot list by the Department of Transportation.  Due to conflicts with a pending Seattle Public Utilities project, the crosswalk was taken off the ballot for this round of funding.

Historically

Previously the distribution of the Park & Street Fund had been determined by community input through the nine District Councils.  These representative organizations would collect proposals submitted by neighbors, and vote for the three they most wanted to see funded.  Under the District Council model, groups of neighbors put together the proposals, presenting them to their neighborhood organizations, who passed them along to their District Councils.

With ‘Your Voice, Your Choice,’ this process opens to more public involvement, and scrutiny, but less experience and, possibly, less institutional awareness.  At YVYC meetings, a single citizen can propose an idea – no matter how rough or fully-realized.  “We got a lot of vague ideas that really danced,” Frankl said of suggestions that came in this year.  She also acknowledged that some proposals overlapped, coming from a variety of sources.

YVYC engages neighbors in the budgeting process, but it could also give the City an opportunity to educate us about the tools and resources available.  In traffic calming, there are curb bulbs, crosswalks, cycle tracks, traffic circles, timed signals, etc.  According to Frankl, they’ve worked to de-jargon the process and make it easier for everyone to understand what amenities can be installed.

Finally, Frankl acknowledged that even as she works on ‘Your Voice, Your Choice’, to refine this process and make it easier for the public to engage, “everything is up in the air this year.”  This Fall, elections will be held for a new Mayor, and to determine two At-Large City Councilmembers.  “There is a big question mark around the fall elections,” Frankl explained, and what a new administration might decide about ‘Participatory Budgeting’, and the future of the Department of Neighborhoods.

Please, Vote!

Regardless, Frankl sees ‘Participatory Budgeting’ and all opportunities to be more inclusive, and involving the citizenry, as an important facet of any administration.

This is our chance to take part.  Vote now, either on-line or using a paper ballot (available at community centers and Seattle Public Library branch locations,) for ‘Your Voice, Your Choice.’  Each voter must decide in which of the seven council districts they want to vote, self-identifying the district where they have strongest ties.  West Fremont is in District #6, which has nine projects in Ballard and Greenwood on this ballot.  East Fremont, in District #4, has a project at Gas Works Park.  “Vote in the district you feel most connected to,” Frankl suggested.

On-line, voters are asked for a phone number where they can receive a texted code.  They then vote using the code and agreeing to a voter oath (saying that they won’t vote more than once and that they are who they claim,) with an on-line signature.  Frankl promised that while ballots are not anonymous, none of the information on the ballot is being collected for tracking purposes.  Simply speaking, “we are trying to avoid ballot stuffing,” she explained.

With ‘Your Voice, Your Choice’, Fremonsters have been given a chance to decide how we want to see real funds spent on real problems.  Please vote on the Park & Street Fund, and let our City know that we want to be involved and engaged in our community.

 

 


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©2017 Kirby Laney.  This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws.  Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.

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