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Brooklyn Broadside: ‘Participatory Democracy’ Gets Test

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Almost all the governments in our country — federal, state, city, county and local — are democratic republics. People in a geographical area democratically elect other people to represent them in the business of government.

This approach is cumbersome, but as Winston Churchill once famously said, “It’s better than the alternatives.”

Now an experiment is underway in a few City Council districts, two in Brooklyn, called the Participating Budgeting Project, which is the name of a nonprofit organization. Here is how it works: those who want to participate join together to make real budget decisions a part of a City Councilperson’s discretionary budget — in this case $1 million. This is participatory democracy such as still practiced in a few small towns in New England.

This particular process was actually “invented” in Brazil, interestingly enough, and was tried occasionally in a few places in this country, but until now not in this hard-to-govern city. About 250 people are participating in the four districts, it is reported, and it is too soon to make any judgment calls.

But one thing is clear already: governing in a democracy is not easy. A decision can lead to any number of adverse reactions that in turn have to be resolved or the original decision taken off the table. News reports indicate how surprised people are at how intricate making government decisions can be. The many contradictory and confusing elements of government have rendered citizens both impressed and depressed.

No one knows if there is any substantial future to the participatory approach. If there is, there will have to be direct involvement by the community planning boards, which are unelected: members are appointed by borough presidents and City Council members.

As happened to the once highly promising community school boards, group divisions will surely form. Here one isn’t just talking about decisions by themselves, one is talking about money and how it is spent. Citizen participants who don’t know much about politics must quickly learn or they will become nonparticipants.

The two Brooklyn City Council members who are participating are Brad Lander of Park Slope and Kensington and Jumaane Williams whose district stretches from East Flatbush to Midwood.

April 4, 2012 - 11:02am


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