Beginning later this month, residents of the 29th Ward will be able to start voting on how to spend $700,000 of aldermanic menu money, according to Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th). Every year, each alderman is allocated $1.3 million in funds dedicated to paying for public infrastructure projects. The pot of money is typically spent at the aldermen’s discretion.

Last month, residents in the 29th Ward volunteered for committees designed to research each project and figure out costs related to ten projects that were voted on by 22 ward residents who attended a March 30 meeting. Those committees are scheduled to reconvene on May 12.

Residents will begin voting on those 10 projects, which include installing dog parks and murals throughout the ward, during the week of May 19. The voting will be open to all residents who are at least 16 years old.

Voters would need to come into the ward office, located at 6272 W. North Ave., in order to cast their ballots. There will be display boards describing each project. Taliaferro said he hopes to include visual renderings as well. The 29th Ward office is open between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Mondays; between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; and between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. on Saturdays.

In an interview last month, Taliaferro said the voting would run between three and four weeks. He’s since changed the voting timeframe to two weeks.

“The issue we’ve run into is that we want to get the projects submitted to the Chicago Department of Transportation as quickly as possible,” he said. “More than likely, it will be a two week voting process, but that gives residents plenty of time to be able to come in and vote.”

In 2009, North Side Ald. Joe Moore (49th) became the first Chicago alderman to open the aldermanic menu process to the public, launching what is called a participatory budgeting process, which entails residents and community groups submitting their ideas, and voting, on how the money should be spent. Whichever spending projects received the most votes were the ones to be funded.

Since then, participatory budgeting has been utilized in almost a dozen wards. This year, nine aldermen selected to implement the budgeting process, with the 29th Ward participating for the first time. So far, it’s been the only ward in this newspaper’s service area to do so.

At a community meeting last month, 24th Ward Ald. Michael Scott, Jr., said he decides on how his menu money gets spent based on the number of 311 service calls residents put in.

“We assess and put in for this year and, if not, for next year,” Scott said, adding that he was open to having more community involvement in the budgeting process, but isn’t convinced that it’s in the form of participatory budgeting.

“I’m uncertain about participatory budgeting,” he said. “I’d like to have community input. I’m just not sure participatory budgeting is the right venue.”

Taliaferro’s predecessor, Deborah Graham, kept a tight her ward’s menu money, often declining interviews about the participatory budgeting process. Last year, Austin Talks had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how the menu money was spent.

Taliaferro, who defeated Graham in a run-off election last March during which he was in favor of participatory budgeting, said he didn’t implement the process his first term because there were urgent infrastructure needs that needed to be addressed as soon as possible.

The alderman said that, this year, he was comfortable with opening up $700,000 worth of menu money to the participatory budgeting process. In the future, he noted, he hopes to give residents a say over the entire menu budget—which local community activists have lauded as a more democratic alternative to one alderman having say over the funds.

“The important thing about participatory budgeting is citizens get to decide what’s the real priority … It brings a lot of residents together who probably have a lot of different issues and gets them to kind of sit down and strategize,” Elce Redmond, an activist with the South Austin Community Coalition Council, told Austin Talks last year.

Taliaferro said he consulted with Ald. Moore, and had some conversations with other aldermen, regarding the best way to implement the budgeting process. Taliaferro also said he sat in on a participatory budgeting meeting in the 49th Ward.

According to Ald. Moore’s website, 2,100 residents of his ward voted in this year’s participatory budgeting process. That was the highest turnout yet, according to the site, but it was still a miniscule share of the voting population. According to the Chicago Board of Elections, nearly 15,000 residents in that ward voted in the March 2016 primary — more than 70 percent more than the number of people who voted on the aldermanic menu budget.

That figure signifies an uphill climb for Taliaferro if he’s hoping for high participation in his own participatory budgeting process. The first-term alderman said he’ll try to get the word out about the process through social media and more traditional media outlets, but he realizes that he might be at a natural disadvantage.

“Ald. Moore has been an alderman for many years, so I imagine his social network is much larger than mine,” Taliaferro said, adding that he didn’t have any conversations with Moore about how to maximize participation.

The 10 participatory budget projects up for a vote

  • Amundsen Park exercise equipment
  • Permanent community sign
  • Mural (at Central)
  • Mural (at Austin)
  • Native plants
  • Dog park
  • Community gardens
  • Median (North Avenue)
  • Light post banners (neighborhoods, student-designed)

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...

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