Not clear how outgoing alderman has spent 2015 menu money

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Participatory budgeting was a popular topic during this year’s 29th Ward aldermanic race. The process, used in a handful of Chicago’s 50 wards, gives residents a say in how an alderman spends more than $1 million of “menu” money each year.

During the election, Ald.-elect Chris Taliaferro said he favored participatory budgeting — and since winning the April 7 runoff, he’s repeated his support of the process.

“I certainly want to give our ward an opportunity to participate in how we allocate the resources for infrastructure improvement,” Taliaferro said in a post-election interview.

It’s not clear how much — or if any at all — of the $1.3 million allocated in this year’s city budget to the 29th Ward has been spent. Taliaferro said he has a meeting scheduled with Graham Friday, May 14, where they will discuss the menu money and the transition of power.

Taliaferro takes over Monday, May 18.

Outgoing Ald. Deborah Graham declined repeated requests for an interview, and she didn’t respond to a Freedom of Information Act request asking for details on how she has allocated menu money so far this year.

Her office did release a brief statement stating, “she is aware that (AustinTalks) have been attempting to contact her concerning the menu. She has been in conversations with Downtown and is waiting for further information related to these questions. Upon receipt of this information, Alderman Graham may be available for comment.”

AustinTalks was able to obtain records from the Chicago Office of Budget and Management detailing Graham’s menu money spending for 2014.

Those records showed the largest portion of spending went toward street resurfacing ($665,915), followed by street lighting ($584,000). Alley resurfacing accounted for $49,038; pole painting cost the ward $18,700; and curbs and gutters repairs totaled $1,665.

Here’s how West Side alderman spent menu money in 2011.

Taliaferro said he has not made any decisions about how any remaining menu money should be spent for 2015.

He said he would first need to meet with Graham to find out how much of the menu money is left then meet with various city department heads to find out what projects are currently slated for the ward.

““If there’s a Department of Water project that’s going to be going on or a ComEd project or a People’s Gas project, you really don’t want to go and fix that street because it’s going to just get torn up again,” Taliaferro said.

Once that is sorted out, the process of getting the community informed and involved can begin, he said.

One of the ways aldermen use the participatory process is by first holding community meetings then letting the residents vote on the best ideas, said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at University of Illinois at Chicago and a former alderman.

Some alderman in the handful of wards who get community feedback in this way (such as 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore) have found creative ways to use the money for aesthetic upgrades, including murals for Metra overpasses. Menu money is restricted specifically to capital improvement projects, like street resurfacing and light pole maintenance, according to city policy.

It’s that kind of diversity in ideas that makes participatory budgeting more democratic, said Elce Redmond, a community organizer for the South Austin Coalition Community.

“It creates that local, democratic process,” Redmond said.

“The important thing about participatory budgeting is citizens get to decide what’s the real priority … It brings a lot of residents together who probably have a lot of different issues and gets them to kind of sit down and strategize,” Redmond said.

Other residents agree with Redmond, but caution the process should be sure to include the voices from as many individual residents as possible – and not be allowed to be dominated by larger community groups.

“(Participatory budgeting) can be very helpful in allowing people help define and determine what happens in their neighborhood,” said Serethea Reid, a member of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association (CANA) and the Advocates for Neighborhood Development and Empowerment. But she added, “volume is not the determining factor.”

Political scientist Simpson said there is precedent for taking the process even further.

“I’d like to see alderman move beyond just participatory budgeting to neighborhood government, which would involve community zoning boards and maybe even ward assemblies, like I had in the ‘70s,” Simpson said.

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