(Opinion) City Council District 1 Needs Participatory Budgeting

Image from Christopher Marte's Instagram feed.

Image from Christopher Marte’s Instagram feed.

The following op/ed was written by Christopher Marte, a candidate for City Council in District 1 (the seat currently held by Margaret Chin) The Lo-Down welcomes Lower East Side-relevant submissions from members of our community. We review submissions from candidates for political office on a case-by-case basis. Editorials on this website represent the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial viewpoint of The Lo-Down.  Submissions may be sent to: tips@thelodownny.com.

These are contentious times that require unity. As our values are challenged on a national scale, we are required to mobilize within our own neighborhoods. We have heard it at the rallies: the people united will never be defeated.

In 31 City Council Districts across New York, the people are given an opportunity to unite as a base like no other. Anyone older than 14, regardless of citizenship, can propose and then vote on how at least $1 million of their taxes are spent by their councilmember. In this process, an otherwise voiceless group of residents are politically empowered. Participatory Budgeting projects range from installing clean energy, to renovating parks, to improving technology, to fixing the infrastructure of schools, to strengthening public safety. The people are given an opportunity to spend their own tax dollars, councilmembers are able to fund popular community initiatives with transparent funding, and everyone enjoys the benefits of the programs enacted.

Except for those who live in districts where their councilmember chose not to opt into participatory budgeting. Districts like Lower Manhattan (District 1), where political transparency has become the stuff of legends. The diversity of the district and the lack of community engagement creates an environment in which neighbor is pitted against neighbor, demographic against demographic, and any sense of community is immediately dissipated by confusion as to how much the city can provide. Too many residents are led to believe that whether it’s for funding or services, they must compete with each other. However with proper budgeting, and the assistance of participatory budgeting, there is enough to go around. This false perception of division in the district allows participatory budgeting to be dismissed before it is even attempted. But our community must unite to demand this program, to demand transparency, and to demand an active voice in the Council.

Participatory budgeting should not be a point of debate, or painted as a controversial issue. Residents young and old are given a direct voice in government, and anyone who stands against this is standing against democracy in action. Just north of us in City Council District 3, the councilmember fully funded the top 5 proposals voted on by his constituents. People who never engaged in the political process before had their concerns heard and addressed. Now the entire district will have new trees, new AV equipment will be installed in an elementary school, new air conditioning in a library, new arrival times at bus stops, and a new library at a middle school. All needs that the community expressed, all that might have otherwise been overlooked, and all that will serve not only residents of District 3, but anyone who works or visits there.

The major critique of PB is that it requires a lot of extra work for a city councilmember and their office. Since the program is not mandatory, our representative sees it as a choice. For a district that has been riddled by corrupt leaders like  Sheldon Silver and scandals like Rivington House, a clear path to transparency and good governance isn’t an option. It is a necessity.

As we are forced to sit back and watch communities in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island deliberate and enact participatory budgeting initiatives, I ask my friends and neighbors to take stock of the difference between them and us. Is it because our district is so divided, or is it because we have a representative that divides us?