NEW YORK — Participatory budgeting, which promises to give constituents a greater say in how public funds are distributed in their communities, was adopted by the 19th City Council District last year — one of less than a dozen to do so. But the next Council member to represent the district will have to decide whether to continue it.
Under participatory budgeting, community members aged 16 or older decide on which local projects need to be funded through the city’s capital budget allotted to the district rather than having the Council member make that decision as he or she typically would. The process was initially developed in Brazil in the late 1980s, and introduced in New York City in 2011.
Most of the candidates running for the 19th district seat in northeast Queens said in interviews with the Gotham Gazette that they would support participatory budgeting as an important way to bring transparency to how money is handled in the district.
Democratic candidate Chrissy Voskerichian said there was “no downside” to participatory budgeting. “True success comes from the community working together,” she said.
Voskerichian is one of six candidates — five Democrats and one Republican — who are now vying for the seat left open by Republican Daniel Halloran after he announced he would leave office amid allegations he was involved in a bribery scheme.
Voskerichian, 51, is Halloran’s former chief of staff, and participatory budgeting was instituted while she still worked for the district. She resigned less than a week after the arrest of her boss and made the decision to run shortly after that.
Besides Voskerichian, Democrats running for the 19th district include a member of the Vallone political family, a former assemblyman, an urban planner and a former state senate press secretary. The winner will represent one of the larger geographic districts in Queens that was redefined during last year’s district process and spans from the tip of the College Point neighborhood to Little Neck bordering Long Island.
Dennis Saffran, 57, the only Republican in the race, praised the process for connecting voters with the larger political process, saying: "It creates a certain amount of enthusiasm about the [political] process and knowledge about the process."
Saffran, currently a lawyer, is running for this Council seat for a second time after previously losing to Democrat Tony Avella in the 2001 election.
Paul Vallone, the president of the Clinton Democratic Club, and a member of the Vallone political family (his father and brother served on the Council), said he thinks participatory budgeting should be continued.
But he said the power of the councilmember's office should be leveraged into injecting more money into the budgeting process.
"It's a good thing to continue, I think it is something that we could even try to expand," said the 46-year-old candidate. "The local Council office is the arm of the district and the stronger your Council office is, the stronger you will be able to fight for all funding in the district. The ability to work with your other elected officials in Queens and throughout the city, the speaker, the mayor is a way to bring back these critical funds."
Fellow Democrat Austin Shafran, a political operative and former spokesman for state Democrats, said that if he were to be elected he would use his entire discretionary capital budget to fund projects supported and approved through the participatory budgeting process. This would likely inject more money for the next fiscal year than the $995,000 that was allocated towards participatory budgeting for the district in fiscal year 2014.
"You can set aside a small amount of money or you can set aside the entirety of the funding that a councilmember will have to allocate. I think that any money that the councilmember is giving should be [allocated] through a community-based process, to strengthen participatory budgeting," said Shafran, 33.
Democrat candidate John Duane, 59, a lawyer and former assemblyman, applauded the practice of participatory budgeting because of the transparency it brings to the budgeting process.
He said he would create an oversight board for discretionary budget that would vet all projects that he wanted to fund that aren't included in the participatory budgeting.
Candidate Paul Graziano, an urban planner, said he isn't as excited about participatory budgeting as his fellow candidates. He was very critical of last year’s budgeting process, calling it a "PR tactic,” a "beauty contest" and a "dog-and-pony show."
Graziano, 42, said he was concerned too few people got involved in the process.
"The thing that gets me very irritated is there is almost 160,00 people in the district, 1,170 voted," he said. "That's not participatory budgeting. That is a tiny, tiny minority of the people voting."
But this year marked the first that voters were able to get involved in the process, which could have damped participation. The councilman's office also had a limited amount of time to spread the word about the process. Halloran's arrest, which happened after the first day of budget voting on April 2, may have also made it more difficult to get constituents involved.
Participatory budgeting is still just a pilot program. Council members volunteer to allocate around $1 million or more of their discretionary capital budget towards the program. Capital — not expense — funds can only be used through the participatory budgeting, meaning the money must go toward infrastructure.