2011-11-04 / Columnists

Commentary On Things Present

Let’s Try Bottoms-Up
By Peter Stubben

In the great crisis of 1787 the confederated states were not syncing up well, so our Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to reorganize into a ‘more perfect union.’ They heatedly debated a strong federal government vs. a states rights government, and finally reached a grand compromise through the brilliance of Madison (and Hamilton) to establish a semi-strong central government, but one split among three powers – the Congress, the President and the Judiciary.

Our founding 55 delegates produced a melded top-down Constitution.

Presently and during this great crisis of our current Recession, America’s faith in her government is again being severely tested. David Brooks of the NY Times asked on October 25,

“The elemental question in American politics is: Do voters trust their government?”

There are too many polls, but one last week found that less than 20 percent of Americans think the Government is doin’ the right thing. We now have ‘occupiers’ and ‘tea-partiers’ protesting all across the nation.

One reason voters remain dissatisfied or disgusted – in my view, anyway – is that despite being completely surrounded by the top-down planning and spending of billion of tax dollars (almost a record 24 percent of GDP): (1) accountability is meager, (2) transparency obscure; and (3) results sensationally unproductive.

Likewise, the City of New York spends some $65 Billion per year, but in a Council of 51 members elected from around the entire city, only one matters – Speaker Christine Quinn. The Speaker decides who gets the cake and who gets the crumbs. Further, too many City Council members have been disbursing their funds (crumbs and cake alike) to back-door not-for-profits that feed more into their political careers – in too many cases – than into their constituents. Again, it’s a top-down planning and spending process with meager accountability and transparency.

Enter Porto Alegre, Brazil (home to 1.4 million people). Brazil – which once brought us the bikini and the samba – now offers us participatory budgeting. In the ‘90s the people of Porto Alegre spun the public spending process completely upside down to bottoms-up spending – locals, like in yesteryear’s New England Town Hall meetings, deciding how much to spend and on what projects.

Our city has now begun a bold, brave and exciting experiment to test ‘participatory budgeting,’ and Rockaway’s Councilman Ulrich signed up as one of four experimental districts to test the process. IT WILL NOT BE EASY!

Locals are presently getting together in open meetings to decide what projects they believe are most worthwhile for funding. How revolutionary, no? – the power of the purse not on Bloomberg’s desk, but here on the horizon of NYC. Meeting info can be found in this newspaper. A Compendium of these projects will be produced this winter and then the people of Rockaway and Broad Channel will vote next spring – the projects with the most votes get funded. Simple to say: very, very hard to formulate.

PARTICIPATE, gentle reader – make ole Tom Jefferson proud!

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