Harsh is Harsh on PB
And just plain wrong on why
Cleveland councilman Kris Harsh, who represents Old Brooklyn’s Ward 13, published an attack oped on June 2 against participatory budgeting (PB) and — most specifically — the people behind it. While Kris has some compelling ideas, they fall short of reality. So let’s set the record straight.
Alright, where’s this all coming from?
PB is a progressive local governance strategy that expands control over local public revenues to residents directly through a free, fair, and open system of project solicitations, proposals, and voting. Whereas local public revenues are typically controlled by the local legislature (or another, equivalent publicly-controlled body), PB expands this control to residents by letting them vote directly on projects that they’d like to see funded. It’s as simple as that; the rest is but details that make the magic happen.
Movements to develop and implement PB measures have sprouted up and been advanced throughout the United States since 2009, though the practice actually dates back to 1989 Brazil. In 2020, there were 144 cities coast-to-coast that organized a PB program. In New York alone for this year, over $32 million of public money is dedicated and will be spent through a PB system. While scale and specific processes vary, the practice is popular, and research shows that it increases the likelihood people vote by about 7%.
And what (and who)’s he talking about?
The national PB movement made its way to the Land in early 2021 with Participatory Budgeting Cleveland (PB CLE). PB CLE was a grassroots organization of local organizers, activists, and concerned citizens who wanted to see a future for Cleveland that allowed residents to regain control over local government. In a city, county, and state plagued by systemic and deeply entrenched corruption, this is an admirable goal. And with the entrance of a new, bright-eyed mayor, the prospect of progressive change was realistic.
This movement, however passionate those behind it were, ultimately failed. Promises with leadership were broken, and Council were unimpressed — and even openly hostile — to this method of budget reform. And to be clear, PB CLE didn’t even advocate for a full-blown inclusion of PB within Cleveland’s budgeting process. All they asked for was for the City to reserve $30.8 mln (symbolic of Cleveland’s poverty rate) of their ARPA money to residents’ control through PB. This was negotiated to $5.5 mln before Mayor Justin Bibb put it before Council.
The women on Council were wholly supportive of the plan; the men, however, were not so much. Council President Blaine Griffin, who represents Ward 6 spanning multiple neighborhoods on the east side, had some words:
[City Council] represent the people of Cleveland. Anything else you hear is disingenuous, hyperbole, and misleading.
Mike Polensek from Collinwood’s Ward 8 and Kris Harsh (who we’ll talk about) took objection to paying a steering committee to run the PB process. That’s rich coming from two people who are paid real money to do the business of government — you know, what the steering committee would do.
In Mike’s words:
I don’t understand why I have to pay people to go to neighborhood meetings.
I assume he’d be fine if we cut his salary. After all, what is City Council if not just a big neighborhood meeting we all agree is something special.
Like a phoenix rising from the Cuyahoga
Undeterred by opposition from those in power, and with an ever-growing movement from the grassroots to see PB gain a foothold in Cleveland’s local politics, PB CLE reinvented itself. On May 26, PB CLE rebranded as the People’s Budget Cleveland (still PB CLE) and formally began efforts to bring an amendment to the Cleveland City Charter before residents.
The amendment is pretty simple.
2% of the annual budget goes to PB, phased in over 4 years as $350,000 admin and then 1%, 1.5%, and 2%
The Mayor and City Council appoint a 10-person steering committee to organize the process. Any Clevelander 16+ can apply for a seat. Half of the steering committee is controlled by the Mayor, and half by Council.
Any resident aged 13+ can propose and vote on capital funding and time-bound projects over a 2-year period through the PB process.
That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.
So what’s all the hoopla?
As one of the newer additions to Council, Kris Harsh has some opinions. And as a man on Council, his opinion is that PB is bad.
Let’s explore that. (links in the quotes are from the original)
PB = Big Bad
Participatory budgeting (aka “PB”) undermines movements for social justice and fails to engage residents in the electoral process. It’s hard not to be so blunt when the evidence is overwhelming and obvious. On top of failing to result in any social good, it also is extremely costly and constitutes what is best described as a new bureaucratic branch of government.
So this is the thesis Harsh wants to advance, and right out the gate, he’s going for the throat. We can already see that Harsh wants to frame PB as bad in respect of 3 areas—social justice, engaging residents in the electoral process, and social good—by discussing 3 issues—”the evidence,” the cost, and the bureaucracy.
Let’s see how he does.
PB = European
The theory behind PB is that it engages citizens who feel left out of the political process by giving them a new route to civic involvement. In reality, in nearly every city in America where it’s been tried, less than 5% of residents are involved. In fact, in many cities, it becomes a vehicle for gentrification as residents with the most social capital take advantage of their free time to participate, while those without the luxury of time are left out of the process.
In many ways, this distracts the people who would otherwise be involved in progressive social movements by giving them a neutered political process to keep them busy. Across Europe, PB has become the new way for politicians to sidestep any and all requests for spending reform.
“Take it to the PB board,” they say.
The fact is PB increases voter intention, civic knowledge, and has other social benefits. New York City saw an average 8.4% increase in voters’ probability of voting. Boston saw an increase by 7% in young people’s intent to vote plus a slew of other benefits, like increased neighbor socialization, awareness and education about social issues and civic processes, and enhanced feelings of empowerment.
Cleveland is a shadow of what it once was, and if we can’t look up to major American cities, then what can we do. Is the literature on PB’s benefits within the American context robust? No. Does that invalidate findings we do have from other cities? No. We don’t talk about the effectiveness or success of voting in terms of voter turnout, so why would that ever be legitimate for PB? The answer: it isn’t. PB’s effect on civic engagement isn’t limited to voter turnout, and even if it were, PB itself is not a tool by which to increase voter turnout. It’s simply a process by which we extend direct democracy to public control of public money. Whether PB voter turnout is high is a separate question we can address once we have PB.
Harsh then decides to gesture towards gentrification by claiming that PB is a “vehicle” for it. Gentrification is not some objective thing. It’s an empirical observation of the effect of redevelopment in economically depressed areas on the pre-redevelopment residents, who are excluded and thereby removed from the neighborhood because of increasing rents and property value. Redevelopment is a good thing, and we must pursue the redevelopment of Cleveland’s most economically depressed neighborhoods for the city to reach its potential and for residents to enjoy a high standard of living and quality of life.
PB, when applied to capital budgeting, is a tool of redevelopment. PB only becomes a “vehicle of gentrification” when government does nothing to protect its most at-risk residents from the downside of redevelopment. tl;dr, if Harsh and his peers did their job, then this wouldn’t be a concern. That he sees PB as a “vehicle of gentrification” is telling of his feelings for the neighborhoods. In fact, PB is also a means to control gentrification by placing capital budgeting decisions into the hands of the people who live there, instead of leaving these decisions to Council, who have neglected neighborhood development since time immemorial.
And finally, the idea that PB is a “distraction” is damning of Harsh’s feelings for actual progressive movements. Direct democracy is not a distraction. Voting is not a distraction. These are core civic processes embedded deeply within our society and that are central to the American experiment. Council without PB doesn’t engage in spending reform, so where’s this concern coming from? Council without PB doesn’t engage with progressive movements throughout the city, so where’s this concern coming from? Harsh shouldn’t cast stones before he removes the plank from his own eye.
Also, who the hell is “they?” And since when did we care what Europeans have to say about literally anything? The fact is PB offers a process by which residents can directly vote on things they want funded. This isn’t a tool for politicians to sidestep government. This isn’t a tool to distract the masses. It’s direct democracy, loud and proud.
What this section lacks in substance it makes up for in rhetoric. And that’s all this is: baseless rhetoric devoid of reality.
Strong + Central = Good
Just as the recent charter change in Issue 24 took police accountability out of the hands of the mayor, the proposed PB Cleveland charter change would take resident projects out of the hands of the Cleveland City Council.
It’s also a failure in terms of increasing civic engagement. Aside from the small number of people involved in this effort, it has completely failed to dramatically increase voting rates in any city where it does exist. In fact, it’s so poor as a civic engagement tool that half the eight U.S. and Canadian cities recently profiled in a Brennan Center for Justice report on participatory budgeting have already ended the practice.
All they learned was a new way to waste taxpayer money.
Now here’s an interesting idea. Harsh is a fascinating fella because he simultaneously presents PB as a means to distract people from engaging in progressive social movements, and then presents Issue 24 — which was a progressive social movement — as a bad thing. The Mayor and Council didn’t do their job of managing the Cleveland PD. As a result, people got sick and tired of the senseless police brutality (and murders) and said enough is enough. Full civilian and public control over the PD is an unambiguously good thing, especially when we live in a city that has yet to fulfill its consent decree.
But let’s also be real here. Issue 24 didn’t take control of the Cleveland PD out of the Mayor’s hands. That’s a grotesque mischaracterization of what really happened. The oversight commission is charged with investigating the PD to ensure that it doesn’t engage in misconduct without public scrutiny and has power to assess consequences for officers’ actions. In a world where qualified immunity stymies justice for the victims of police violence, Issue 24 was the first step towards reasserting the public interest in local law enforcement and reigning in the unbridled power of the brotherhood.
What Harsh is referring to here are two parts of Issue 24. Section 115-1 shifted control of the Office of Professional Standards, which oversees non-criminal complaints against the Cleveland PD, to the civilian commission. And Section 115-5 gave the civilian commission the final say on whether officer punishments are sufficient. But what Harsh doesn’t tell you is that Issue 24 gave the Mayor the power to appoint the commissioners — even the power to approve the commission’s election of a director — and shifted the power to remove commissioners from the executive head of the PD to the Mayor. What Harsh also doesn’t tell you is that Justin Bibb, i.e., the mayor, supported Issue 24.
Now let’s talk about that article he cites, because that’s an interesting bag of worms he conveniently failed to fully explore. While it’s true that that article does show that some cities dropped their PB programming. And while it’s true that voter turnout was frighteningly low for the PB programs investigated by the Brennan Center. What Harsh doesn’t tell you is what the article concludes with:
The comments from interviewees underscore an important reality about PB: Effective, well-organized PB processes can build trust in government, strengthen civic ties, address urgent local needs, and give underserved communities a louder voice in decisions that intimately affect their day-to-day life. Less effective processes, by contrast, can lead to demoralization and disappointment, potentially further decreasing trust in government for some residents. So exactly how PB is set up and implemented is crucial.
That second part that’s not bolded will be crucial to talking about his opinions in the next section. But let’s examine that first bit, because as Harsh would have you believe, PB is “a failure in terms of increasing voter engagement” and is “a new way to waste taxpayer money.” But that article he cites to show this doesn’t seem to agree. On the contrary, the article also highlights some key takeaways, all of which — you’ll be unsurprised to learn — directly contradict his position.
“Give residents actual control”
“Provide enough project funding to motivate residents”
“Don’t forget funding for full-time staff”
“Limit restrictions on the types of projects allowed”
“You can never overdo outreach”
“Be clear from the outset about what PB can and can’t do”
“Don’t be afraid to experiment”
Apart from the second-to-last takeaway, these points fundamentally undermine Harsh’s position; while Harsh sees PB as a “failure” and a “way to waste money,” his own source says, “no — actually, you should make PB meaningful for residents, fund dedicated staff (as per the next section), and provide only limited restrictions on allowable projects.”
It is possible to oversell PB, and this study shows that that’s a real risk. But characterizing PB in negative terms when your own source says exactly the opposite is a small-brained move. If you’re gonna write an attack piece, make sure you read all of the sources you’re using for support.
Committees = Corruption
Speaking of taxpayer funds, PB is obnoxiously expensive! The activists pushing this in Cleveland envision at least $500,000 per year in administrative costs, while carefully constructing the proposal to allow them to spend as much of the $14 million per year as they want on consultants and staff. Don’t believe me? Read the proposed charter change for yourselves.
They will be responsible for organizing the people who vote, then counting the votes, then funding whatever they choose with city funds outside the guardrails of City Council. Which means they could simply vote to employ themselves to run more meetings, or even engage in political activity at their choosing. To date, the only idea they’ve generated is to secure funding for themselves. The entire process is set up for corruption on a scale that would make Larry Householder blush.
Again with the deceptive wording. The amendment mandates $500,000 for admin costs and has that number scale by 2% every year to account for inflation. Given that we haven’t seen 3 or 4% inflation in years, this scaling factor is far below what is necessary to ensure parity long-term. While the number should be tied to the CPI (though Harsh would likely hate that as well), this is overall what we call good policy. They know they require a certain amount of money but don’t want to restrict future generations with the burden of a statutory number. They actually even pin committee member compensation to the CPI, which is just good policy.
And Kris, I didn’t believe you — so I read the amendment. Turns out, your $14 mln figure isn’t anywhere in the language, and you’re being real loosey-goosey with your interpretation.
What he’s likely talking about is Section 204-3 where the amendment gives the committee the ability to contract with experts “with experience facilitating community-based group meetings, engaging grassroots groups and promoting equitable civic engagement to co-lead on education, outreach, and engagement during the PB process.” What he doesn’t tell you is those services are defined as administrative costs in Section 204-5, which is restricted to $500k.
So sure, if you squint at this the right way, maybe you can see his point.
It all comes down to this: either Harsh doesn’t think people should be compensated for giving their time to the successful process of government, or he thinks that PB is so useless any amount in compensation is fraud — or both. Neither position is something that’s desirable for a local politician to believe. Either he doesn’t understand that the business of government costs money, or he’s distrustful of attempts to expand access to civic processes to more people. As with the first, neither of these are desirable for a local politician to believe.
Now, it’s at this time that Harsh really ramps up the rhetoric, dialing it right up to an 11. Yes, this committee organizes voters. Yes, this committee counts the votes. But no, they don’t decide what gets funded and what doesn’t. That’s the voters. This is why PB isn’t just a second City Council. Instead of relying on (and ultimately trusting) our elected officials to really and truly represent the needs and will of their constituents, PB puts the power of the purse squarely in the people’s hands. You don’t have to wait for your councilperson to act. Instead, you can initiate change and garner support for your own ideas on your own within a forum of your peers — not some politicians — who will rule on the matter.
And to round this all off, Harsh compares PB to Larry Householder. We used to reference Jimmy Dimora as a shorthand for corruption on an unprecedented scale, but apparently Larry has won that honor. Regardless, once you dismantle the first part of this section — that it’s the people, not the committee, that vote on projects to be funded — then you realize how laughable this claim is.
Sure, you can actively undermine civic processes and game the system that way. That’s always going to be true; it’s a sad fact of civic life. But the idea that people who are civically-engaged are going to vote for policy that wastes public money, as opposed to spending that money on much-needed improvements, is absurd. Either you trust democracy or you don’t. Which leads us to the final section.
Direct Democracy = Anti-democratic
Which brings me to the last reason to reject this ill-thought-out idea. We have bigger fish to fry on planet Earth. We have a climate in crisis, a federal government teetering on the brink of rule by neo-authoritarians and a state legislature that continually invents new ways to subvert democracy. In contrast to this, Cleveland City Council stands as one of the most progressive elected bodies in the nation. We ought to be focusing our time and efforts on these real threats to democracy, not splitting hairs over which local project to fund.
Participatory budgeting is a Trojan horse that hides the true intentions of its promoters -- to guarantee themselves a paycheck on the public dime without having to justify their worth or be held accountable to the taxpayers.
The City of Cleveland can’t stop climate change. The City of Cleveland isn’t the federal government. And the City of Cleveland isn’t the OH General Assembly. While all these problems Harsh mentioned are real, they’re all outside the scope of local government. Now the City of Cleveland can certainly contribute towards climate action, and it should do that. But what’s interesting about those last two points is that, yet again, Harsh is advocating against direct democracy while trumpeting the laurels of the democratic process and anti-authoritarianism.
The problem with this approach lies in the fact that the City of Cleveland is, in fact, a city and the City Council is, in fact, a local legislature. So “splitting hairs over which local project to fund” is precisely the kind of thing the City of Cleveland and the City Council should be doing since that’s the reason they exist. Use your influence to push progressive policy nationwide, sure no one’s arguing against you doing that. But first and foremost, your priorities lie at the local level.
This is also an interesting approach because, on the one hand, Harsh describes climate change and authoritarians as threats to democracy (which they are) but, on the other hand, doesn’t consider non-involvement in civic processes to be worthy of the same designation. Or he’s relying on you believing that PB isn’t a legitimate process — either way, things don’t make sense.
The conclusion to this letter is a real kicker. “PB is a Trojan horse,” Harsh says, “that hides the true intentions of its promoters.” Well let’s explore those “true intentions” then, shall we.
First, the amendment is structured to make the idea that this is a ploy for the “promoters” to “guarantee themselves a paycheck on the public dime” absurd since the people who are on the committee are appointed through a process directed by the Mayor and City Council. So even if we believe that both the Mayor (who endorsed PB a while back) and City Council will fight against the process, the fact is that they still control appointments to the steering committee which, in Harsh’s words, “will be responsible for organizing the people who vote, then counting the votes, then funding whatever they choose with city funds.” The idea that this process is “outside the guardrails of City Council” and that the “promoters” can “guarantee themselves” anything is therefore ridiculous.
Simply put, if you believe the process is corruptible, then controlling who controls the process would ensure it cannot be corrupted. Alternatively, if you believe that the process isn’t corruptible, then controlling who controls the process would make it corruptible because it takes power away from a democratic majority and puts it into the hands of a representative body. In the first case, this amendment structures PB in a beneficial way for its opponents. In the second case, there’s no reason to worry about PB at all, other than the Mayor’s and City Council’s power over it. Neither case bodes well for Harsh.
(This is a minor point, but $5,000 is hardly a paycheck. That’s not money that anyone in any situation can live on. So the wording here is meant to deceive.)
Now this next idea of the steering committee “not having to justify their worth” is extraordinary for a few reasons. It’s true that the committee is only responsible to itself in a reductionist sense. Section 204-4 states that “The Committee has the sole authority to remove a Member upon a vote of the Committee based upon a process that will be set forth in the [Committee’s Code of Regulations].” This is clearly intended to remove the ability of the Mayor and City Council to compel members, once they’ve been appointed, into making decisions in any way. And for a process that intends to be direct-democratic, this attribute is necessary to ensure that interference in that process cannot come to pass.
What makes this extraordinary is that we don’t say the same thing about other commissions within the City of Cleveland — we don’t say the same thing about City Council itself, though many people would very much like to — because we all agree that a representative approach to local governance is generally a legitimate way to govern. Where Harsh has some cognitive dissonance is in portraying PB, which is a textbook direct democratic process, as something that is anti-democratic while also claiming to fight those who rule by authoritarian means.
If direct democracy is anti-democratic, then so too is representative democracy and republicanism. By this logic, not only is City Council anti-democratic, but all of the United States — apart from the Electoral College and Supreme Court — are anti-democratic. This is particularly funny since everyone can agree the Electoral College and Supreme Court are in fact anti-democratic. Flipping reality on its head is truly a novel approach here, though its effectiveness is questionable.
Okay, let’s wrap this up.
The idea that PB is a scheme to undermine the power of the Mayor and City Council is just silly, I’d even say borderline plain goofy. If Harsh were actually concerned with the particularities of the amendment, then he wouldn’t’ve have opposed it when it was put before him and City Council. What this is is a new politician looking to establish his brand and gain positive rapport with the Cleveland and Cuyahoga ruling class and Democratic Party elites.
In a world where real progressive policy is opposed by a party purporting to represent the left-wing, all we’re left with is feckless neoliberalism and strong opposition to real policies that put power back into the hands of everyday people.