This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: One day after coming in third place in a battle for a St. Louis aldermanic seat, Michelle Witthaus says she received a notable text message from a former rival.
It was from Christine Ingrassia, who had defeated Witthaus and Damon Jones in a competitive Democratic primary for 6th Ward alderman. Ingrassia offered to work with Witthaus to launch of a pilot iteration of "participatory budgeting,” which had been a central campaign plank for Witthaus and two other unsuccessful aldermanic candidates.
"I said '‘give me a couple days just to kind of decompress from everything,” Witthaus said. "So we met up a couple weeks later and really started discussing the idea.”
Months after the smoke cleared in the skirmish within the central corridor-based ward, Ingrassia and Witthaus are teaming up to make a tangible — and potentially precedent-setting — change to how capital improvement funds get distributed and implemented. By the spring of 2014, residents of the 6th Ward are set to vote on how to distribute $100,000 for projects proposed and vetted by residents.
Ingrassia and Witthaus joined others to lay the groundwork over the last few months for the process. Also assisting the effort is Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment's Zach Chasnoff, who Witthaus said has been instrumental in"helping us get this off the ground."
For Ingrassia, working with Witthaus seemed like a no-brainer. After all, a number of 6th Ward residents she talked with seemed intrigued with the idea of having a direct say in where the funds went.
"I think one of the sad things that happen in elections sometimes is that just because you lost an election doesn’t mean you didn’t have good ideas," Ingrassia said. "And if people are able to work together to make something happen that needs to happen, that makes more sense to me than just letting those ideas die with the candidates.”
Every year, each of St. Louis' 28 aldermen is allocated an amount of money to spend on ward improvements, such as fixing sidewalks, sprucing up parks or improving lighting. Instead of letting the elected aldermen decide by fiat where to steer that money, participatory budgeting opens the process to the public. It's a program that's been adopted by political figures in larger cities such New York and Chicago.
"The 6th Ward is a great place to start,” Witthaus said. "Because we have a very diverse ward racially and economically, we’re a fairly good representation of the city as a whole. This is a good place to start with a pilot. Because of that … it’s kind of a reflection of what would happen if we did for the city as a whole.”
The process for "participatory budgeting” is multi-faceted. In the next few weeks, Ingrassia and others will be on hand for "neighborhood assemblies” aimed at educating residents about how capital improvement funds work. It will also provide a chance for residents to brainstorm about ideas for projects, and recruit "budget delegates” who will be asked to gather resident input and flesh out proposals.
"Any residents who are interested in coming up with project ideas are going to be able to sit on budget delegate committees,” Ingrassia said. "And they will work closely with myself. And I will make sure that the Board of Public Service is tied in, so they’re coming up with correct estimates and projects that are within the scope of what capital funds are allowed to be used for.”
Once neighborhood assemblies are completed, ward residents will get a chance to attend "budget expos” in February and March 2014 that will showcase proposals and provide opportunity for feedback. Ultimately, residents of the 6th Ward will cast votes on projects they wish to see funded.
Both Witthaus and Ingrassia noted that voting would be different than a conventional election. For one thing, the vote will take place across multiple days and multiple locations.
"The main thing is it’s much more inclusive,” Witthaus said. "We’re going to have standard voting locations like regular elections. But we’re also going to do some roving voting. … The Metrolink Station at Union Station is in our ward. We could set up voting there when people are getting off from work to stop vote, as long as they have proof that they’re a resident of the 6th Ward.”
Ward residents who are at least 16 year old can vote for up to three proposals, which, Ingrassia said is "a good way to start people young realizing the value of being involved in their communities — and just the fact that they can make a difference.”
"I think it’s also worth noting that we are definitely trying to bring in all the voices in the ward,” Ingrassia said. "We are not going to be checking immigration status. People with felony charges who aren’t allowed to vote will be not be prohibited. … You don’t have to be registered to vote to participate. We’re really trying to hear what everybody thinks, because they’re all living in the community and are affected by what’s going on here every day.”
Witthaus said each resident would be allowed to vote only once. "We will require a picture ID and proof of residency," she said.
The pilot program is already garnering outside attention: It managed to capture an InvestSTL grant, money which could be used to help get the word out about the process. And in addition to helping fix some of the 6th Ward’s issues, Ingrassia is hoping participatory budgeting deepens civic engagement among ordinary residents.
"At the end of the day, it’s going to be really good for people to kind of see how the process works — to see that these capital funds go for everything from streets and alleys, curbs, sidewalks, dumpsters, park equipment,” Ingrassia said. "There’s a lot that can be covered with a little bit of money and maybe they’ll understand the budgeting process a little better.”
One person who will be watching how participatory budgeting unfolds in the 6th Ward is Todd Swanstrom, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Swanstrom has also traded e-mails and had discussions with some of the project's organizers.
He noted that Porto Alegre, Brazil's use of participatory budgeting has "lots of success of ideas that not only people like, but I think it’s helped label the city as a progressive forward-thinking modern city.”
He said the political culture in St. Louis "has been stunted by aldermen being in control.” And while he emphasized that "there’s nothing wrong with aldermen being very involved,” he said that "for them to set the priorities based upon their own personal judgment is I think problematic.”
"With the aldermanic system in St. Louis, I think people become very cynical about civic engagement,” Swanstrom said. "Because they tend to think in many cases that it doesn’t matter, because the aldermen will simply decide who he or she wants to fund or what they want to fund. So I think that participatory budgeting is a breath of fresh air, insofar that it levels the playing field and says that if you have a good idea that maybe you can get it funded."
Swanstrom added that success will require educating "the city departments to both help people develop their ideas and finally implement them." He also said there are some limitations to a ward-based system, adding that "infrastructure needs cross the borders of different wards."
"But nonetheless, I think this is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Indeed, Witthaus said her "ultimate goal” is taking participatory budget to the city budgeting process. She noted that's what happened in Vallejo, Calif., where residents got a chance to direct several million dollars to various projects.
"If we started out with something like that, then various communities are going to start advocating for themselves and the hope is that there won’t be this discrepancy in areas that have streets that are paved and areas that don’t,” Witthaus said.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.