At their meeting Thursday, the members of Evanston’s Participatory Budgeting Committee approved a plan for setting rules for a democratic process to decide how to spend $3 million in federal stimulus funds.

Two new resident-led committees will be tasked with drafting, revising and approving a participatory budgeting rulebook for spending money for the City of Evanston from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The rules will outline how residents’ proposals will be developed from ideas to ballot-ready projects. It will address issues such as overall goals and principles, project criteria, voter eligibility and a specific timeline for the city to follow.

Participatory budgeting, or, PB, is a process in which citizens weigh in on how municipal money is spent.

In late July, the city opened the application for a participatory budgeting steering committee, which will take on the heavier work of drafting the full rulebook.

Professor Matt Easterday, who leads Northwestern University-based group PB Evanston in consulting the city’s process, told committee members Thursday that 32 residents had submitted applications to the steering committee, more than there were spots available.

“Thankfully, we have the problem of having a ton of applications … Evanston has really turned out,” Easterday said. “If we take everyone who is interested and seems qualified, we have a gigantic steering committee that’s going to be really hard to make decisions about the rulebook.”

Three committees, three roles

In order to include all the interested residents, the participatory budgeting committee agreed on a three-group structure to create the rulebook and run the remainder of the process.

First, the steering committee will be formed and will include Council Members Bobby Burns of the 5th Ward and Devon Reid of the 8th Ward, and 15 residents selected to be representative across wards, gender, race, age, income and other factors. This group will develop a first draft of the rulebook, with assistance from PB Evanston and city staff.

A flowchart showing how Evanston’s three committees dedicated to participatory budgeting will create a rulebook for the process. Credit: Alex Harrison

Second, a larger leadership committee will be formed and will include Burns, Reid and all of the current resident applicants (after vetting and council approval), including all members of the steering committee.

That group will review the rulebook’s first draft, propose revisions and vote on a final draft. They will also direct work and organize events throughout the rest of the participatory budgeting process.

Finally, the existing committee – made up of Burns, Reid, Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma of the 4th Ward and Mayor Daniel Biss – will review the final draft and make sure it doesn’t conflict with federal regulations, then vote on the plan. That group will take on more of a backseat role as the budgeting process continues, focusing on resolving issues as they arise while leaving active leadership to the resident committees.

Notably, the rulebook will not be sent for a vote by the full City Council after approval from the participatory budgeting committee. Nieuwsma said the process shouldn’t be delayed by too much bureaucracy, and that the committee can act as representatives of the City Council.

“Having four required approvals is too bureaucratic,” Nieuwsma said during discussion. “I would be comfortable taking the Council out of that and having this committee have the final approval.”

Steering committee representation

Later in the meeting, committee members discussed which applicants to select for the steering committee. A list of recommendations from city staff was shared with the committee, which included both at-large members and representatives from local community organizations.

Burns noted that only one 5th Ward resident applied for the committee and made a motion to add a second spot for a resident to be named later. He said representation is important and that he planned to speak about it at a ward meeting the same night.

​​”There are people who probably don’t even know that this was an opportunity,” Burns said. “(The city doesn’t) do a good job really advertising much of what we do, let alone this. And that’s not a discredit to any of the PB folks, it’s just literally not enough, it’s a big city, people are busy.”

The committee approved the list of recommendations, with both Burns’ addition and another addition of an 8th Ward applicant as amendments. The list will go to the City Council for final approval on Sept. 12.

Alex Harrison reports on local government, public safety, developments, town-gown relations and more for the RoundTable. He graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in June...