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Why Clevelanders Should Reject Participatory Budgeting (People's Budget): by Kris Harsh

Jul 20, 2023

This editorial was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and on

CLEVELAND -- Participatory budgeting (aka “PB”) undermines movements for social justice and fails to engage residents in the electoral process. It’s hard not to be so blunt when the evidence is overwhelming and obvious. On top of failing to result in any social good, it also is extremely costly and constitutes what is best described as a new bureaucratic branch of government.

The theory behind PB is that it engages citizens who feel left out of the political process by giving them a new route to civic involvement. In reality, in nearly every city in America where it’s been tried, less than 5% of residents are involved. In fact, in many cities, it becomes a vehicle for gentrification as residents with the most social capital take advantage of their free time to participate, while those without the luxury of time are left out of the process.

In many ways, this distracts the people who would otherwise be involved in progressive social movements by giving them a neutered political process to keep them busy. Across Europe, PB has become the new way for politicians to sidestep any and all requests for spending reform. “Take it to the PB board,” they say.

Just as the recent charter change in Issue 24 took police accountability out of the hands of the mayor, the proposed PB Cleveland charter change would take resident projects out of the hands of the Cleveland City Council.

It’s also a failure in terms of increasing civic engagement. Aside from the small number of people involved in this effort, it has completely failed to dramatically increase voting rates in any city where it does exist. In fact, it’s so poor as a civic engagement tool that half the eight U.S. and Canadian cities recently profiled in a Brennan Center for Justice report on participatory budgeting have already ended the practice.

All they learned was a new way to waste taxpayer money.

Speaking of taxpayer funds, PB is obnoxiously expensive! The activists pushing this in Cleveland envision at least $500,000 per year in administrative costs, while carefully constructing the proposal to allow them to spend as much of the $14 million per year as they want on consultants and staff. Don’t believe me? Read the proposed charter change for yourselves.

They will be responsible for organizing the people who vote, then counting the votes, then funding whatever they choose with city funds outside the guardrails of City Council. Which means they could simply vote to employ themselves to run more meetings, or even engage in political activity at their choosing. To date, the only idea they’ve generated is to secure funding for themselves. The entire process is set up for corruption on a scale that would make Larry Householder blush.

Which brings me to the last reason to reject this ill-thought-out idea. We have bigger fish to fry on planet Earth. We have a climate in crisis, a federal government teetering on the brink of rule by neo-authoritarians and a state legislature that continually invents new ways to subvert democracy. In contrast to this, Cleveland City Council stands as one of the most progressive elected bodies in the nation. We ought to be focusing our time and efforts on these real threats to democracy, not splitting hairs over which local project to fund.

Participatory budgeting is a Trojan horse that hides the true intentions of its promoters -- to guarantee themselves a paycheck on the public dime without having to justify their worth or be held accountable to the taxpayers.

In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I would like to formally challenge the PB CLE organizers to a public debate. Perhaps The City Club of Cleveland or local League of Women Voters could facilitate this discussion so that we can be open, transparent and honest about what is and isn’t being proposed. If the voters are being asked to decide this, they deserve an open process by which to understand it.

Kris Harsh represents Ward 13 on Cleveland City Council. Prior to being elected to City Council in 2021, taking office at the start of last year, he was a community, coalition and union organizer for over a decade.