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Participatory Budgeting Favors Wealthy, White Residents, Opponents Say

ROGERS PARK — Neighborhood activists are demanding that Ald. Joe Moore (49th) reform the participatory budgeting process he championed in Chicago that helps decide how $1 million per ward is spent on infrastructure projects every year.

Occupy Rogers Park, founded in the spirit of protesting income inequality and other social injustices, says the process meant to empower minorities and low-income residents has mainly benefited the wealthy, whites and the better-educated.

"We want to bend the process back to its original intent," said Jim Ginderske, who has helped plan the budgeting process, dubbed "PB 49," since its inception in 2009. "We have 15 demands."

Ginderske and the other Occupy members published the demands on a website created to further their cause.

"We demand an inclusive leadership composition within PB 49 that is reflective of our diverse community. PB 49 draws most of its leadership from privileged communities," began the first demand.

Another implored the ward to partner with Loyola University to encourage students to vote in the election, while another demanded voting stations at Willye B. White Park and Sullivan High School.

The alderman, however, contends that recent efforts such as community meetings held in Spanish and mobile voting sites have helped diversify the voting base.

Moore said he'd be more than happy to do more — and to work with the Occupy group.

"I have a lot of ideas, but we are hampered by a lack of funding," Moore said when reached by phone Wednesday evening. "I've spent several tens of thousands of dollars to fund this effort — of my own money — because I believe in it very deeply."

Moore's 49th Ward was the first in the United States to implement the process of allowing residents to decide where to spend discretionary funding.

"It would be nice if these people would give me some credit that I did this," Moore added. "Mr. Ginderske's efforts to besmirch the efforts of volunteers is really unfortunate. It hampers our effort."

In Chicago, each of the city's alderman is given $1.3 million a year to spend as he or she wishes on infrastructure projects, which can range from street paving to public art installations.

Each year since 2009, 49th Ward residents have proposed projects and then voted on which they want funded.

This week, residents began voting for 2013 projects, which include possible bike lanes for Clark Street and a new shelter for the Rogers Park Metra train station.

Josh Lerner, the executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, which works with several communities who have implemented the process, said he's "definitely sympathetic to the Occupy concerns."

"I think there hasn’t been enough outreach," he said. "Low-income people and people of color have not participated as much as I would like. That said, it’s really important to put it in context. This isn’t unique to [participatory budgeting] elections."

Lerner said public meetings and public elections in general attract wealthier, better-educated and civic-minded people.

"I think everyone agrees there needs to be more outreach," he said. But he also agreed with Moore that limited resources prevent reaching every community.

Vallejo, Calif., the first municipality in the United States to implement participatory budgeting citywide, had allocated $200,000 for outreach efforts, Lerner said.

In its elections, he said, they're actually finding that a disproportionate amount of low-income and minority residents are turning out to vote.

"If [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel wanted to make a similar investment in democracy," he said, "you’d see a diversification" of the voting base.

"For the city, it would be a drop in the bucket," he added.

This year, participatory budgeting has expanded to three other wards, using the 49th Ward as a model.

Ginderske said the model needs to change.

Occupy Rogers Park cites survey data collected last year by a graduate student at the University of  Illinois at Chicago.

Of those surveyed on Election Day 2012, the vast majority were English-speaking, gainfully employed and white.

But Moore said the survey didn't cover voters at mobile sites, like at train stations, where a more diverse range of residents vote.

Yet Ginderske, who ran against Moore in the hotly contested 49th Ward aldermanic race in 2007, criticizes that the lack of information and transparency from the alderman "is typical Chicago politics."

Moore called Ginderske's public criticism an old political trick.

"You try to take what is the strongest advantage a political figure has and try to make it their biggest weakness," Moore said. "I’m simply not going to let that happen."