The City of Victoria has joined with municipalities around the world by venturing into what Julien Braun, participatory budgeting steering committee spokesperson, describes as an example of “direct democracy”.
It’s the first year for this program, which invited citizens to suggest initiatives that would make Victoria a better place, with their ideas ranked in a free public vote.
Within those broad parameters, the 28 submissions received by the committee were reviewed by an independent citizen group of volunteers who consulted with experts within the city’s bureaucracy to ensure that the concepts were not already in play, and that they were physically and legally viable.
Eight applications remained after some submissions were withdrawn by the applicants and others were deemed to be impossible for logistical or legal reasons.
“We were initially concerned that we would have some goofy applications submitted, like the Boaty McBoatface situation in Great Britain, where the public’s input was invited to name a publicly owned research vessel. Nothing like that happened,” said Braun.
“All of our submissions were serious and spoke to what people in the community thought was important.”
The remaining eight project ideas were shared with the community and votes were cast to determine which of them would ultimately be given a portion of the $55,000 budget allocation. The committee received 4,300 votes to determine the successful projects, and City Council had no control or input in the final decision.
The first of the three final projects saw Our Place receive $25,000 for their Next Steps Employment Program, a project to create pathways to gainful employment for Victoria’s most vulnerable citizens.
The second approved project was as different from the first as possible, with the Pollinator Partnership of Canada receiving $11,500 for a native bee apiary installation that will appear in a variety of locations and serve to enhance native bee communities in downtown areas. This, say the project’s proponents, will aid in the pollination of urban gardens.
Finally, a $16,000 project submitted by the Food Eco District (FED) and LifeCycles, will see the construction of a “learning garden” at the downtown branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library.
The learning garden will be a community space and outdoor classroom where the public will learn about all things gardening. FED and LifeCycles will work with the library to run ongoing educational programming at the site to help citizens learn how to grow food in an urban environment.
While Braun admitted that the 4,300 votes received by the committee was a relatively small number of citizen participants in the selection process, she stressed that it was largely a function of how much money was allocated to inform the City about the process and the fact that it was a pilot year for the program.
“I would love to see the number of votes grow in years to come, but this was a good start that showed that the concept can work,” said Braun, adding that, for now, she does not see the amount of money allocated to the program increasing beyond current levels.
Participatory Budgeting has gained a toehold in countries around the world, and in Chicago and New York the process is used to determine how “Alderman’s Menu Money” (discretionary funds allotted to each electoral ward) is spent. The amount of money allocated in this way in these major urban centres is measured in the millions of dollars.