Hairston, Cappleman Pass on Participatory Budgeting This Year

SherMon Plaza proposal FINAL 2-11-13
Proposed design of SherMon Plaza, which won funding last year in the 46th Ward.

As we’ve recently reported, the 49th Ward is holding its fifth participatory budgeting election this year, the 45th Ward is holding its second, and the 22nd Ward is taking the process for a spin for the first time. However, the 5th and 46th wards, which experimented with PB last year, won’t be taking part.

It’s no shock that Alderman Leslie Hairston’s 5th Ward, on the south lakefront, isn’t holding a PB election: last year, only about 100 out of the district’s 50,000-plus residents voted. In Alderman Joe Moore’s 49th Ward, largely made of Rogers Park, a whopping 1,400 people cast ballots. John Arena’s 45th, largely Jefferson Park, and James Cappleman’s 46th, largely Uptown, drew 650 and 390 voters, respectively.

Hairston’s office didn’t return my call, but in January, the Hyde Park Herald reported that the alderman decided not to stage an election this year because of the low turnout. She also cited the expense of running the election, which she said included $60,000 for a staffer to administer the program, plus money out of her own pocket for materials and refreshments, and added that some constituents found the PB process too time-consuming.

A resident who helped organize the election blamed the low turnout on the location of the poling place, in a relatively remote corner of the ward. A candidate who ran against Hairston in the last election attributed the lack of participation to constituents being unhappy with the alderman’s leadership.

One possible factor in the low turnout that wasn’t mentioned in the Herald is Hairston’s decision to exclude several nontraditional ideas for promoting biking and transit use from the ballot. Unlike the other three aldermen who held elections, Hairston designated these proposals as “service requests” that should instead be funded by city departments, the CTA or the park district. However, street, sidewalk and lighting repairs, which can also be paid for by city agencies, were left on the PB ballot. The winning three projects were an urban garden, street lamp improvements, and new lighting in Metra viaducts.

PB5 Vote
Voting in the 5th Ward Participatory Budgeting election. Photo courtesy of PB Chicago.

In contrast, last year’s election in the 46th Ward, largely Uptown, was a grand slam for groundbreaking transportation projects. Residents opted to fund SherMon Plaza, a project that will connect a traffic island at Sheridan/Montrose/Broadway to the sidewalk to create a new public space, and the Leland Greenway, leading from Clark to the lakefront. They also chose to bankroll crosswalks, pedestrian countdown signals and traffic calming, and to pay for building or refreshing bike lanes on several streets in the ward. The other winning proposals were for security cameras in Sheridan Park and a left-turn signal at Sheridan/Irving Park.

With a respectable turnout it its first year, leading to several innovative projects being chosen, it seems like the 46th Ward PB election was a roaring success. So why isn’t it coming back this year? “We decided not to participate, namely because we have some major infrastructure issues,” explained Cappleman’s chief of staff Tressa Feher. She said the lion’s share of the ward’s $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds will be spent on rebuilding Sheridan Road in the ward. “Arterial streets are more expensive because of heavy traffic, and it might be necessary to move utility lines.”

But Cappleman isn’t completely turning his back on the PB process. He’s setting aside about ten percent of the menu money to fund murals for the Lake Shore Drive viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence. Community leaders will select at least four designs submitted by artists — the deadline is May 1 – and then residents will get to vote for the final designs in the late spring. Feher added that Cappleman may hold a full PB election in 2015.

Meanwhile, the ward is making progress on last year’s winning proposals. Many of the more conventional projects have been completed. Some of the $448,000 that voters set aside for bike lanes will be used for buffered and protected lanes on Broadway from Montrose to Foster, part of a major complete streets overhaul for the thoroughfare. CDOT hoped to build the lanes last year, but ran out of time before it got too cold to stripe thermoplastic, so they’ll be installed as soon as it gets warm enough. The ward will hold a community meeting to discuss other possible amenities for Broadway, including pedestrian islands, planters, and People Spot mini-parks, this Thursday at 6 p.m. at the former Borders building, 4718 North Broadway.

The Chicago Department of Transportation recently finished a report on SherMon plaza, which Cappleman will share with the community in the near future. “They had to make big changes to the plan dues to traffic patterns and bus turning movements,” Feher said. For example, a proposed neckdown on Sheridan south of Broadway will probably wind up on the cutting room floor.

CDOT is also working on the Leland Greenway. Cappleman held a public meeting on the greenway in November, and staffers did a walk-through of the street with residents, including members of Bike Uptown. The transportation department is currently trying to figure out how to connect the eastern terminus of Leland, near Uplift High, to the lakefront, and are in talks with the school and a nearby hospital. “That’s a tricky one,” Feher said. “CDOT is making sure that the plans are safe.” The alderman will hold another meeting on the greenway once the design proposal is completed.

  • CL

    These aldermen probably made the best decision for their wards. The problem with deciding where to spend infrastructure money through elections is that most people don’t vote — and we know that the people who do vote tend to be disproportionately educated, higher-income, white, etc. So there’s an argument that these elections will direct more money to projects that benefit more privileged people at the expense of more urgent infrastructure needs in low income areas of the ward. A lot of proposed projects benefit just one street or area, meaning they don’t benefit all ward residents equally — so who votes matters. Additionally, some projects only benefit certain types of people. I’m always disappointed that projects to improve access for disabled residents (ramps, benches) don’t get more support, probably because most voters don’t need them — but in my opinion accessibility should be a priority.

    And even aside from turnout issues, residents might not be in a position to know what is most urgently needed — so they might vote for projects that sound cool at the expense of boring infrastructure repairs that should actually be a priority.

    It sounds like in Hairston’s ward, the results weren’t representing the majority of the ward (only 100 voters!). And in 46, the alderman identified an urgent need — a major artery that needs major repairs — and decided this would be best for the ward. It sounds like they both made good decisions. Participatory budgeting is good PR because it allows the aldermen to show that they’re serious about getting input from residents, but it’s not necessarily the best way to spend money.

  • Adam Herstein

    Why the hell do people have to show up in person in a narrow time window to vote on infrastructure projects? Why was there no online voting option? At the very least, a website could have been set up and voting done at libraries for those who have no internet at home.

  • Something I noticed in our PB process in 46 last year was that we dedicated no % of the funds to street resurfacing like other wards did, and therefore the only major resurfacing I can recall was Clarendon, which was probably paid some other way. It makes sense that the money’s going to resurface another street. Sheridan needs it too, it’ll be better to bike on once it’s resurfaced.

  • Anton Cermak

    Probably because PB is a non-profit with an limited budget so they cannot hire a consultant and/or do not have the volunteers or staff with the technical knowledge necessary to make an online voting site.

  • Davidrenfroe

    Why the hell don’t other people do things the way I think they should be done. I mean it was easy for me to sit here at my computer and have the idea, for free! It should be just as easy for someone else to spend the money and do the work to make it happen. GAWD!

  • Eric Allix Rogers

    The 5th Ward is doing a mini-PB this year, per an email from Hairston that recently went out. Here is what it said:

    “Many of you have been anticipating the return of Participatory Budgeting “PB5″. Due to the cost and time, I have chosen to streamline the process and keep the concept to maintain transparency, community involvement and the democratic process. The first meeting will take place at the 5th Ward Service Office next Tuesday, April 8 between 6 pm-8 pm for residents of the South Shore and Woodlawn Communities. The second meeting will take place Wednesday, April 9 between 6 pm-8 pmfor residents of the Grand Crossing and Hyde Park Communities. Since we have experienced such a harsh winter, we will focus mainly on street resurfacing and street lights.”

    This seems fairly reasonable to me. A streamlined process, and more accessible polling locations, should help boost turnout. Plus, people in South Shore and Hyde Park are up in arms about a bunch of things this year, which wasn’t so much the case last year. I think that alone would drive up turnout.

  • Thanks for the update. We may follow up with the ward for more info in the near future.

  • cjlane

    You mean, like it’s done in the 47th Ward?

    Speaking of: John, how’d you miss that the 47th does PB, too?

  • That ward is not one of the three official PB participants: http://www.pbchicago.org/ However, they did do some PB-style decision making last year. I’ll check in with them on this year’s plans, thanks.

  • cjlane

    “However, they did do some PB-style decision making last year.”

    There was participatory budgeting decision making. It was “-style” only in that it was not like these “official PB” processes.

    Somehow, outside the aegis of the “official PB”, the 47th ward had an online voting site that the “official” process didn’t.

  • FG

    “A candidate who ran against Hairston in the last election attributed the
    lack of participation to constituents being unhappy with the alderman’s
    leadership.”

    Awww, poor 1%er Mary Anne Miles (she lives in a million dollar co-op) who didn’t get very far in her campaign. Interestingly her building is trying to get zoned parking in their block before the new rental building is occupied (which they delayed so they could get parking access in the garage for their building which doesn’t have parking).