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PB CLE responds to Cleveland City Council pausing participatory budget proposal

Keshawn Walker for PB CLE at Cleveland City Hall
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Keshawn Walker rallying for PB CLE at Cleveland City Hall

The group pushing for greater citizen involvement in Cleveland government spending responded Wednesday to city council’s decision to hit the pause button on Mayor Justin Bibb’s participatory budgeting proposal.

PB CLE, short for Participatory Budgeting Cleveland, helped the mayor’s office frame this proposal.

“I don’t think that any of us, who have been working tirelessly for a year and half, volunteering our time because we believe in growing democracy in our city, feel that it’s just time to walk away just because city council doesn’t think that this is something that they want to get behind,” PB CLE community organizer Molly Martin said.

The PB CLE campaign suggested that a participatory budget process would encourage residents to get involved with local government. Martin said city council missed an opportunity for voter engagement.

“How much of a no brainer it is, when you look at the voter turnout rates in Cleveland and the level of civic engagement – even given what’s passed at the statehouse, that cities like Cleveland should feel desperate to try something new,” Martin said.

PB CLE formed in 2021 and looked for support from mayoral candidates at the time.

“While City Council's Finance Committee did not advance the participatory budgeting legislation this week, I have no doubt PB CLE will remain committed to advocating and fighting for this initiative,” Bibb said in a statement Wednesday.

Bibb’s participatory budget plan would have authorized $510,000 in operating costs to staff a steering committee, organize meetings and pay for other resources. Had it passed, residents would have been given more direct say on how to spend $5 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Martin compared those dollar amounts to the large sums of money the city spent on stadium and arena renovations over the years.

“To see the level of scrutiny for that amount when we spend millions and millions and millions, hundreds of millions of dollars on other things, I think just sends a really specific message to residents who are really doing the work,” Martin said. “We’re not just calling for change, we’re willing to do the work and work in partnership, just for that to be discouraged.”

At a Finance, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion City Council Committee meeting on Monday, Martin presented along with fellow PB CLE member Jennifer Lumpkin, Austin Davis, an attorney in the mayor’s office and Erika Anthony, Co-founder of Cleveland VOTES, a nonpartisan organization that encourages voter turnout, that would have helped implement the participatory budgeting plan for the mayor’s office.

This group’s ask at this committee meeting was for the $510,000 of operating costs. It was at this meeting that city council decided this legislation be postponed and not moved out of committee.

City Council President Blaine Griffin shared concerns at the committee meeting earlier this week that the proposal neglects representative government.

“I know that the turnout is not amazing in the City of Cleveland, but for the people that did recognize and exercise their right to vote, they chose us to represent the people,” Griffin said Monday.

Martin counters the process would work collaboratively with city council.

“People do vote for elected officials who represent them, but that doesn’t take their voice away, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have new ways for people to get involved,” Martin said.

Griffin gave local private attorney Kevin Cronin, who said his expertise is in budget activity, time to speak during the committee meeting. Griffin said Cronin helped him look at other similar participatory budget policies.

Cronin questioned the sustainability of the plan. He suggested that projects out of the participatory budgeting process would require year-after-year funding. He also said because ARPA funding is not reoccurring, the city would need to find new ways to fund this plan, which Cronin said would be difficult.

“Later on you’re going to have to have the hard job of coming up and reconciling those priorities with existing priorities and deciding which ones get off the list of things you’re going to do,” Cronin said. “I see too little discussion about the hard tasks that are ahead for you guys.”

Cronin also spoke similarly to Griffin’s point about neglecting representative government when he said a participatory budgeting plan would “make things worse in the sense of respect for government.”

The participatory budget does have the support of four city councilwomen – Deborah Gray from Ward 4, Stephanie Howse from Ward 7, Rebecca Maurer from Ward 12 and Jenny Spencer from Ward 15.

PB CLE said it will meet next to figure out its next steps.

Gabriel Kramer is a reporter/producer and the host of “NewsDepth,” Ideastream Public Media's news show for kids.