Somewhere between bureaucratic somnambulism and government-as-game-show, is a way to involve ordinary citizens in soliciting input on how their local tax dollars ought to be spent.
Forest Park Commissioner Chris Harris took a shot at that middle ground last week with his first “participatory budgeting” session held at the library. As Commissioner of Public Property under the village’s goofball “commissioner form” of government, Harris was focused on citizen input in the Public Property budget. And since he was there freelancing without any visible support of his democracy-in-action project from his fellow commissioners that portion of the budget was really all he could talk about.
It would have worked better if attendance had reached double digits. It would have worked better with slightly more context. Is there discretionary money to be appropriated? How do priorities get set?
For instance, the notion of a colorful new awning to spiff up the Community Center was nice until it was mentioned that the building currently has some water leakage issues. And investing in public sculpture and a second dog park seem like better ideas before the news that village hall needs a new roof that will cost $100,000.
Still and all, we were heartened by the discussion about why it is that the village owns and operates the so-called “pocket parks” when it has always seemed more logical for the park district to manage parks. We saw Harris’ concept of saving money by changing the timing on when the village buys fuel as interesting though it again raises sincere questions about why an elected official who makes his living as a computer consultant ought to be negotiating a fuel purchase contract with a vendor. Isn’t that what the village administrator is paid to do and would probably want to do?
Intriguing ideas raised out of good observation skills were also brought up. In the intense discussion of a second dog park – has there ever been a non-intense discussion of a dog park in any town in America?! – the suggestion was made to ask about locating it on a small piece of private property tucked back near the Residences at the Grove condo and townhouse project near the Blue Line. Why? Because that is a “dead zone” without much of a draw and therefore potentially a trouble spot.
Harris expressed satisfaction with the first such budgetary hearing. We express satisfaction with the notion of involving citizens in the active discussion knowing that the input can only make the final choices of elected officials more thoughtful.