My audacious idea is that we initiate a process to develop more democratic structures for our city. When our country began, there were town meetings where citizens participated and actually made the decisions. Today, in most places the size of Baltimore, voting is the main way we are asked to practice our “citizenship.” After one votes what role is there for the voter? Right now, there are limited channels for citizens to actually determine the direction for the city. When taxpayer’s night is held, for example, the decisions about how to spend our tax dollars are pretty much already made. When public hearings are held, you get the feeling that those who called it want to be able to say there was community “input” but the hearing will seldom affect the outcome. When “community planning” is done, someone other than the “community” often makes the final decision. There are meetings where citizens get to say what they think–sometimes in the form of complaints to politicians or city officials who tell us they will “fix” things–or where city departments ask for feedback from residents and then go back and decide on the best course of action. It is easy to see why people feel alienated from their government. We are asked to vote every two or four years but we seldom have strong collective ways to be involved in the ongoing decisions that affect our lives–unless we have a strong organization to back us, and even that is not a guarantee.
This year people who had never voted or who had seldom voted went to the polls in record numbers. Why? I believe there was a new sense of hope and change instilled in all of us by campaign of now President Obama, the community organizer. For African-American residents of Baltimore there were the added dimensions of pride and history. But in order to sustain this level of participation we cannot go back to business as usual. We must be about democratizing government by creating new forms for citizen participation and control. What might they look like?
In more than 1,200 places around the world, citizens are engaged in participatory budgeting–a process begun in Porto Alegre Brazil in 1989. The people make actual spending choices using a set of principles such as the neediest communities get the funds first. Right now, in Chicago’s 49th ward, residents, with support of their alderman, are planning a “participatory budgeting” process to decide how to engage the electorate in spending the 1.4 million capital budget of that ward.
In Canada, there are numerous examples of citizen assemblies which are convened for various purposes. These assemblies have real power to investigate, deliberate, and then change fundamental policies affecting city residents. Citizens are usually chosen randomly with the end goal being that of having a body which reflects the age, race, sex and income levels of the population as a whole. While experts may work with citizens to assist them in evaluating the impact of their choices, it is the people who decide. A quick survey of civic engagement/citizen participation websites demonstrates that there are many viable ideas out there. What processes can we come together to initiate in Baltimore?