Budget delegates for the Parks and Recreation committee get real
Participatory Budgeting update from JC Martinez-Sifre of the Parks and Recreation Committee:
The reality is beginning to set in for budget delegates engaged in Councilmember Brad Lander's initiative to make participatory budgeting a functional reality in his district.
“I think we’re all beginning to understand how big a process this is going to be,” said Budget Delegate, Michael Hickey of Kensington. The delegates, if they weren't already aware, are coming to understand that this is not going to be a brief exercise in spending a million dollars of public funds.
On Nov. 20, 18 delegates of the Parks and Recreation committee met at Lander's Brooklyn office to begin creating a ballot of projects the public will vote on next year. They were joined by Alix Fellman, an intern at Lander’s office and the committee’s facilitator and also by Wylie Goodman, a representative from Partnerships for Parks, a joint project of the City Parks Foundation and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
The meeting began with a round of introductions. Soon after a quick rehearsal of the criteria delimiting the kinds of capital projects that delegates could consider, Goodman took the floor with a few examples of what kinds of considerations her department looks for when taking on a capital project such as a dog run, one of the more popular ideas proposed by the community at large on pbnyc.org.
Goodman said that dog runs are no longer about, “just throwing mulch down,” but instead can cost as much as $600,000 between drainage requirements, fencing, and land grading among other considerations. A park bathroom, she said, can exceed a million dollars.
She noted that the Parks and Recreation Department looks for an already established, organized and active group of citizens around a project that could take on a custodial role once it is complete, and she also said that the department likes to know that the community board is overwhelmingly behind a project before it will plant a stake in its fulfillment.
New trees, she stressed, were easy projects to develop and push through.
Kim Maier, a resident of Park Slope and who currently holds office as Executive Director of the Old Stone House in Washington Park / JJ Byrne Playground, is a seasoned veteran in what's involved with organizing public projects.
“The realization of the length of time can be surprising,” she said as one who has already completed the circuit being involved in the process of building a new dog run, installing synthetic turf on athletic fields and undertaking playground renovations she began undertaking while Co-president of the PTA at MS 51.
Regardless, Maier expressed optimism for the committee's prospects.
“I think this is a pretty savvy community,” she said. “The progress from meeting to meeting has been very good."
While some of the committee members volunteered with a specific project in mind, others, like Hickey, are there to be present for this innovative process Lander has put forward.
While Hickey’s professional career includes advising non-profits and private organizations on how best to spend funding, he recognizes the importance of what’s at stake. “Spending a million dollars is an important decision,” he said.
“This is much more egalitarian,” he said welcoming the change of being part of the decision-making process instead of advising it as he’s done in his career. “What’s new for me is about doing that with people who don’t know about the process; turn the power of decision to the group, that’s quite unusual.”
While participatory budgeting may seem unusual in so far as a novel approach, Maier said, “I feel this is a logical next step for Brad - a continuation of the good work he’s been doing in the community.”
As Fellman steered the discussion towards how to the group would decide between the many worthy ideas proposed by the community, the dialogue and debate among budget delegates including touching on the ethics of pursuing some ideas over others based on the predilections of the delegates in attendance versus the overall good of a diverse district at-large. Debate occurred whether the Parks and Recreation committee ought to consider projects that would also leave some of the Lander’s million-dollar allotment to other committees or to strive, instead, to secure nearly the entire sum if a dog park were to be a real consideration for the group. There was question over how many projects the committee was expected to settle on thereby making it easier to categorically rule out ideas on any number of criteria such as cost, complexity, or overall need, but the group agreed that the best strategy for coming to consensus was to evaluate each idea line per line.
Decisions, however, did emerge from the conversations such as agreeing to commit to 6 general categories on the ideas list - fitness, dog runs, playground improvements, park improvements, trees/greening and lighting - whereas pools, bathrooms, installing Wifi equipment at parks, renovating handball courts or creating more bocce courts were ruled out.
The decisions emerged not with strict adherence to parliamentary procedure but out of or as a consequence of the clumsy nature of the general discussion. And in that discussion, the process – the democratic process and the reality of it – happened.
“Our responsibility as citizens is to engage at the community level,” said Maier. “You do have a voice; you do have a say, and you can enact change in a small way.”
“It empowers leadership,” said Hickey said about participatory budgeting. “People are leaving the meetings more encouraged. Our goal is really to plant some seeds.”
JC Martinez-Sifre is a displaced journalist and former lifestyles reporter for a subsidiary of the Tribune Company. He currently lives in Kensington and is the Area Representative for the Parent Committee of Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services. He continues to publish his views and can be reached at www.podgnosticast.com.