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Debaters trade jabs, audience members heckle during debate over Cleveland's 'People's Budget'

Councilmember Kris Harsh speaks against participatory budgeting in prepared remarks at Tuesday's debate.
Abbey Marshall
Ideastream Public Media
Councilmember Kris Harsh speaks against participatory budgeting in prepared remarks at Tuesday's debate.

Both sides see their cause as democracy in action. That's the main takeaway from the public debate Tuesday between those who support and those who oppose the charter amendment proposal that could give Clevelanders control of a portion of the city budget.

For People's Budget Cleveland, known as PB CLE, organizers Jonathan Welle and Aleena Starks, steering committee members of the group that conceived of the upcoming measure that will appear on November's ballot, participatory budgeting is a way for Cleveland residents to directly determine how their taxes are being spent.

But Councilmember Kris Harsh said that's why his job exists, as part of a representative democracy.

PB CLE organizer Aleena Starks speaks in favor of participatory budgeting at Tuesday's debate.
Abbey Marshall
Ideastream Public Media
PB CLE organizer Aleena Starks speaks in favor of participatory budgeting at Tuesday's debate.

Harsh, who was joined by Cleveland resident Robyn Kaltenbach on the debate stage, went head-to-head with PB CLE in what was often a contentious and heated debate over the merits of the proposed charter amendment that would codify participatory budgeting, a practice that allows residents to pitch programs and projects to be funded using part of the city budget, into Cleveland’s charter.

If the measure passes, it would eventually allocate an equivalent of 2% of the city’s general fund — roughly $14 million — to participatory budgeting or the “People’s Budget.” Residents over the age of 13 would be able to vote on how those dollars are spent with guidance from a steering committee that would be appointed by Cleveland City Council and the mayor, according to the charter amendment language.

The opposition made its case

Harsh of Ward 13, which includes Old Brooklyn and part of the Stockyard neighborhoods, has been leading a charge against the upcoming ballot measure. His partner, Kaltenbach, is a Ward 13 resident who works in the nonprofit sector.

During the debate, Harsh zeroed in on what he sees as major flaws in the proposed charter language, arguing that there are not strong enough guidelines in place for the steering committee, which would determine processes and select projects based on how residents vote on public money allocations. Those committee members would be appointed by council and the mayor. Harsh and Kaltenbach said that's not enough.

"PB will open the floodgates for corruption like Cleveland has never seen," Kaltenbach said. "With $14 million on the table and no oversight, it will be open season for shady actors looking for an easy buck."

Cleveland City Council has been opposed to the idea, citing concerns of fiscal responsibility and representative democracy, since Mayor Justin Bibb first worked with PB CLE to pitch a pilot program earlier this year. That original proposal included the use of the city’s federal stimulus dollars. City Council killed that plan, and PB CLE worked to get the proposed amendment added to the November ballot to enshrine participatory budgeting in the city charter, a measure Bibb now opposes.

Cleveland’s budget is currently proposed by the mayoral administration and amended and ultimately approved by Cleveland City Council.

In the months since organizers collected enough signatures to add the charter amendment to the ballot, Cleveland City Council members have become increasingly heated in their opposition to the proposal, warning of “massive layoffs” and a detrimental effect on the city and its departments. PB CLE calls those threats scare tactics.

Councilmember Kris Harsh debates PB CLE organizer
Abbey Marshall
Ideastream Public Media
Councilmember Kris Harsh (left) debates PB CLE organizer Jonathan Welle over participatory budgeting.

Harsh and Kaltenbach doubled down on that point Tuesday, echoing concerns from labor unions and other city council members about how a $14 million gap in the city's budget would affect staffing and city services.

"Cleveland employs about 6,000 people, and there's no way to realistically siphon $14 million from the budget every year without cutting payroll," Kaltenbach said. "This means a loss of service to taxpaying residents."

Kaltenbach also argued that it would be easy to "ballot stuff" and asked what safeguards PB CLE has in place to ensure online voters live in the city. Welle said that is up to the future steering committee, but said the group could require identification and verification.

Supporters see things very differently

PB CLE organizer Starks, the political director of the Ohio Working Families Party, and Welle, the executive director of economic development incubator Cleveland Owns, used their time to argue that their proposal would bolster civic participation and put power in the hands of taxpayers funding city services.

"City Council opposed this on principle," Welle said. "They don't want to share power with residents. They don't think that residents deserve to have power to make decisions about how taxpayer money gets spent in their neighborhoods."

Starks took aim at the opposition's claim that only a privileged few would participate in setting the budget priorities and Kaltenbach's statement that only a small share of Clevelanders had time to "worry about participatory budgeting."

"This is pretty clear race-baiting," Starks said. "Harsh wants low-income Black people to believe there's no way Issue 38 could benefit them. Do you think Kris Harsh understands how it feels to be a low-income Black person in Cleveland and can speak for them?"

The point of having elected officials is to make decisions "on behalf of the diverse community they know so well," said Kaltenbach.

The crowd also made itself heard

The packed crowd of the Little Theater at Public Auditorium, 500 Lakeside Ave., frequently erupted in applause and cheers for PB CLE members and took to booing Harsh and Kaltenbach at certain points and rewarding them with sporadic applause at others.

Tensions climbed on stage too, as Harsh spoke over Welle and asked more than his one allotted question at a time, prompting audience jeers and debate moderator Carrie Cofer to remind participants — and audience members — of the rules.

PB CLE members also took jabs at elected officials, asking what council members are so scared of and how they can be sure that council will uphold the charter amendment if it passes.

"Some members of council are more concerned with defending the status quo than with revitalizing democracy," Welle said.

Clevelanders will vote on the charter amendment, also called Issue 38, in November.

Last week, Harsh debated PB CLE steering committee members Molly Martin and Andre White on Ideastream’s "Sound of Ideas" show last week alongside Councilmember Richard Starr. The heated discussion centered on questions from council over who drafted the legislation, where the money will come from and who will be accountable.

Updated: September 26, 2023 at 9:42 PM EDT
Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.