Sep 27, 2023 - News

Cleveland debates participatory budgeting as Columbus works to preempt it

Photo: Sam Allard/Axios

👋 Sam here. I attended Tuesday evening's participatory budgeting debate and left feeling alternately energized and downtrodden.

Debating the news: The event was a refreshing, info-packed civics display. The two sides presented their cases for and against Issue 38 to an engaged audience at the Public Auditorium's Little Theater.

  • Yes, but: The arguments could ultimately be pointless. Hours before it began, legislators in Columbus held a hearing on Senate Bill 158, which would ban participatory budgeting statewide.
  • The Senate voted to pass SB 158 Wednesday, with a stipulation that it will go into effect immediately upon passage. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Details: Issue 38 would set aside 2%, about $14 million, of Cleveland's budget every year for projects to be decided upon by residents.

  • Supporters Jonathan Welle and Aleena Starks used a narrative, emotional approach, telling stories of their families, friends and neighbors and arguing that public resources should be in public hands.
  • "Streets over stadiums" and "people over politicians" were their go-to slogans.

The other side: Councilman Kris Harsh and Ward 13 resident Robyn Kaltenbach made rapid-fire, bulleted arguments that emphasized their qualms about the charter amendment language and the program's significant expense.

  • Issue 38's tangible harms (potential staff and service cuts in the city budget) outweigh its intangible benefits (civic engagement, resident empowerment), they argued.
Four debaters at two tables on a stage.
(L-R) Kris Harsh, Robyn Kaltenbach, moderator Carrie Cofer, Jonathan Welle, Aleena Starks. Photo: Sam Allard/Axios

My take: Harsh should be commended for organizing the debate and presenting the case to voters. Giving residents information and arguments, and letting them make up their minds, is how a public issue like this should be decided.

  • Not by statehouse lawmakers unfamiliar with the issue.

Of note: The Bibb administration on Tuesday submitted written testimony opposing the state legislation. The Greater Cleveland Partnership, the area's chamber of commerce, testified in support.


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