Politics

Long Beach budget experiment gives kids, non-citizens a vote in infrastructure spending

Long Beach City Councilman Rex Richardson is letting the people of his 9th District decide how to spend a quarter-million dollars of city money. Voting is March 21-27, 2015.
Long Beach City Councilman Rex Richardson is letting the people of his 9th District decide how to spend a quarter-million dollars of city money. Voting is March 21-27, 2015.
Rex Richardson

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In an unusual move to engage residents in city government, a Long Beach councilman is asking everyone over 13 in his north city district to vote on how to spend $250,000.

"Public participation only cultivates a greater thirst for even greater public participation," said Long Beach Councilman Rex Richardson, who is leading this experiment in participatory budgeting - the first such effort in Southern California.

The weeklong "election" begins March 21 and it's not a write in. Voters will pick among 11 projects, including a bike lane on busy Artesia Blvd, solar lights to make a park safer at night, and cameras to monitor high crime areas. Jordan High School could get an electronic sign, or parks could get murals. Those choices were culled from an original list of 175 ideas gathered at community assemblies and via online queries.

The projects range in price from $25,000 to $100,000 so it's likely a combination of projects will get the green light to split the quarter-million dollars.

Participatory budgeting has been used in Boston to engage young residents. It's also used in Chicago and by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to spend small portions of those agencies' budgets. The city of Vallejo, Calif. also uses it, said Ginny Browne, a project manager for a nonprofit, the Participatory Budgeting Project.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's budget office is planning something similar, Browne said.

Richardson said residents, local businesses and nonprofits can all cast votes.

He said it makes sense to allow teens and noncitizens to vote because so much of the work the city does is for the area's families, regardless of voter status or citizenship. Kids in his district often spend their after-school time in local parks and libraries because their parents are at work.

"They are best-suited to have the pulse of the community on where the infrastructure needs are, and where the city might need to make its investment," Richardson said.

And he's having fun promoting the election, drawing on the popularity of Bruno Mars' hit song "Uptown Funk" for a video explaining the process for his district, which some call Uptown Long Beach.

The 9th District is home to Jordan High, which Richardson said was a focus of the budgeting project. Jordan students volunteered at community assemblies where the project ideas surfaced and performed other tasks.

About 60 percent of district residents are Latino, 20 percent African-American, 11 percent Asian, and 9 percent white.

Richardson is starting the vote with a kickoff party in Houghton Park in North Long Beach Saturday.