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45th Ward Candidates Propose Participatory Budget Changes

By Heather Cherone | January 15, 2015 5:48am
 Clockwise from top left, Michael S. Diaz, John Arena, Michelle Baert and John Garrido.
Clockwise from top left, Michael S. Diaz, John Arena, Michelle Baert and John Garrido.
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JEFFERSON PARK — Two candidates trying to unseat Ald. John Arena (45th) in the Feb. 24 election said they would make major changes to the process that allows residents to decide how to spend the ward's $1.3 million discretionary budget.

In each of the last three years, Arena has asked residents of Jefferson Park, Gladstone Park, Old Irving Park and parts of Portage Park and Forest Glen how he should spend the $1.3 million set aside for each ward for infrastructure improvement projects through a participatory budgeting process.

Chicago Police Lt. John Garrido said the process has been a "complete failure" because only about 1 percent of the ward's residents participated and voters do not have a "complete picture" of the condition of the ward's streets.

"It’s a flawed process that needs to be more inclusive," Garrido said.

Heather Cherone says the candidates all have different views:

Arena has defended his participatory budget process, saying it engages Chicagoans in the civic life of the city and gives residents a voice in how their tax dollars are spent.

In several Facebook posts, Arena criticized his opponents for their position, saying Garrido or Michelle Baert's election on Feb. 24 would mean a return "to politics as usual" where voters are ignored.

Baert, who publishes a website and Facebook page filled with listings for family-friendly activities as the 45th Ward Mom, said that distorts her position.

"More of the money should be spent on the streets," Baert said. "It may not be the prettiest thing, but it is important."

Garrido said he would change the amount of money to be spent by a vote of residents based on the condition of the streets based on the need for street resurfacing.

In addition, Garrido said he would not allow projects under the jurisdiction of another city or state agency on the ballot.

In 2013, the top vote-getter was the $183,000 project for a new play surface at Beaubien Elementary School. Arena has said that money spurred Chicago Public Schools officials to spend $500,000 on a playground parents had been demanding for years.

For the 2014 vote, Arena capped the amount of money projects controlled by another agency could receive at $100,000. In that election, residents decided to contribute $100,000 to a new playground at Independence Park. 

Projects that can be handled by "community support" will also not be eligible for the ballot, Garrido said.

"We can orga­nize the com­mu­nity to plant trees and clean up after pigeons; we can’t orga­nize the com­mu­nity to resur­face a street," Garrido said.

Michael Diaz, who works as an attorney for the state of Illinois in the department that regulates banks, has said he would not put any of the ward's discretionary budget up for grabs.

The condition of the 45th Ward's streets is an economic development issue, with new shops and stores unlikely to open on a street riddled with potholes, Baert said.

Baert said she would put only $300,000 up for a vote, setting aside $1 million for streets and sidewalk repairs.

While Arena has allowed residents as young as 14 to vote, both Garrido and Baert would allow only adults to cast a ballot.

In addition, both Baert and Garrido said they would work more closely with local chambers of commerce and neighborhood organizations to increase participation.

"Seniors who don’t read the local paper, get emails or use the Internet are essentially left out of the process," Garrido said.

Garrido said he would recruit high school and grade school students distribute ballots door to door and at community meetings.

Voters decided to spend $550,000 — or more than half of the available budget — on road resurfacing in each of the last two years as well as $120,000 in 2013 and $150,000 in 2014 on efforts to rid viaducts of pigeon excrement.

In 2014, voters agreed to spend approximately $240,000 on new trees, many of which replaced trees that were killed by the Emerald Ash Borer and to contribute $100,000 toward a new playground at Independence Park.

In 2013, approximately 650 residents voted in the election, and in 2014, 500 people cast a vote, according to Arena's office.

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