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Want to improve transparency in Baltimore? Embrace ‘participatory budgeting’ | COMMENTARY

Council President Nick J. Mosby's held a online presser to talk about the "First 100 Days Townhall". President Mosby and Councilman Mark Conway talked about the accomplishments of the first 100 days of the current council term and the council's plans moving forward.
Council President Nick J. Mosby's held a online presser to talk about the "First 100 Days Townhall". President Mosby and Councilman Mark Conway talked about the accomplishments of the first 100 days of the current council term and the council's plans moving forward. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

For more than a decade, public trust in U.S. government has hovered at historic lows, according to the Pew Research Center, wavering somewhere between 15% and 22% of people who say that they “trust the federal government to do what is right just about always/most of the time.” In recent years, this trend has begun to permeate the state and local levels. More and more often, the public has perceived an equity gap and lack of transparency from their governments. This lack of trust and transparency has led to disempowered community members who are limited in access to participate in public affairs.

Baltimore leaders like Mayor Brandon Scott, City Council President Nick Mosby and Comptroller Bill Henry have emphasized the importance of equity and government transparency before they assumed office and as they carried out their first 100 days. But at a public virtual meeting last month to recount his accomplishments and goals thus far, Mr. Mosby expressed skepticism about a process that could improve both in the city.

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Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic tool for the education and the empowerment of local communities, allowing individuals to allocate resources, prioritize social policies, and monitor public spending. PB typically works best as a cycle that consists of five steps, all of which are crucial to engaging community members. First, it begins with the design process, where a steering committee creates the framework for the budgeting process. Then the creation of ideas happens, where community members share and discuss project ideas. Next is the development of project proposals, where volunteers turn ideas into project proposals that are then shared with the community at large. From there, residents vote to determine which projects would best serve the community. Finally, the government funds and implements the winning projects.

Cities like New York, Chicago and Boston have begun implementing PB at the local level. In these cities, PB has proven to strengthen democracy, increase civic engagement, improve trust in government and create a better relationship between the public and government officials. In Chicago, an average of about 13,000 community members engage in the PB process. In New York, the City Council Districts have had say over $34 million in taxpayer funds. This is the kind of agency Baltimore residents deserve to have in their city.

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Baltimore City has spent many years cast in a shadow from officials abusing the public’s trust. Participatory budgeting can be one step toward mending the relationship between the Baltimore City government and Baltimore residents. In New York’s model, the process has been remarkably inclusive, ensuring that voices from every diverse experience in the community are heard and considered when voting for the proposals for the city’s budget. According to one analysis: More than half of the PB voters identified as people of color; 10% of them were under the age of 18; a third had an annual household income of $25,000 or less; a quarter were foreign born and 10% non-citizens, and more than 60% identified as female. Many (25%) had faced barriers to voting at the ballot box.

PB allows for anyone to contribute to the conversation regardless of race, gender, age and immigration status, which thus ensures that all people in the community are heard — a critical component to building trust. Therefore, participatory budgeting directly aligns with the stated priorities of the current Baltimore leadership, and we urge them to use their new budget authority to implement this practice for Baltimore City residents.

Juliet Birch (birchjuliet00@gmail.com) is a student at Goucher College, class of 2021. Also contributing to this op-ed from the class of 2021 are: Barbara Eucebio, JaVaunte Neumann, Zoe Fernando-Santana and Claire Corliss.

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