Putting city spending decisions into the hands of our residents

It’s called participatory budgeting. And it’s a game-changer for the West Side of San Francisco.

For years, I have heard people complaining that City Hall doesn’t seem to listen. They would argue that decisions were getting made without input from the West Side. And you know what? They were right.

Since I first took office as supervisor of District 7 in January 2013, I have worked hard to open up city government, make the process more transparent and put decision-making into the hands of neighborhood residents.

Nothing exemplifies that more than participatory budgeting. This is not a progressive idea. It is not a conservative idea. It is a good government idea that is really making an impact in our neighborhoods. Participatory budgeting is used in seven major cities across the United States.

For the past three years, I have invited my constituents in District 7 to tell me how they want community improvement and pedestrian safety funds spent in our district. The Participatory Budgeting Program is run by volunteers who are District 7 residents. They form the Neighborhood Council. We reach out to individuals who live or work in the district to solicit proposals that would benefit our neighborhoods. The Neighborhood Council critiques and scores the proposals. The highest-rated proposals are then placed on a ballot for residents 16 and older to vote on. The proposals with the highest vote tallies are then funded. 

The response has been overwhelming, and the results have been exciting. Three years ago, in a pilot project, we had more than 800 people vote on how to use $300,000 worth of city funds on West Side projects. The program has funded many pedestrian safety projects, ranging from speed bumps to interactive speed radar, throughout the district. In the last two years, the program has also funded small projects to improve our parks and neighborhoods. Combined, the Participatory Budgeting Program funded 23 projects.

The program was such a success in the first two years that we decided to do it again — and now the budget has grown to $500,000. I held a third public forum late last year for people in our district to come together to learn more about the process and talk about projects that needed funding in our neighborhood. This resulted in the submission of 39 proposals. Between April 8 and April 22, our friends and neighbors voted online or in person. Once again, the results exceeded expectations.

Altogether, residents cast 11,751 votes on the proposals. These results will fund six pedestrian safety projects, such as providing better lighting in the Brotherhood Way tunnel and crosswalk improvements to increase safety in school zones. This year’s program will also fund 12 community improvement projects. These projects range from the Laguna Honda Hospital Mural Project to the West Portal Elementary School Neighborhood Green Picnic Pavilion Project. 

At a time when residents are becoming less engaged in our civic affairs, government officials need to support activities that will bring back people’s confidence in our government. We need to stress that their voices are important in making decisions about our city’s resources.

City Hall is currently moving through its budget process. I will continue to fight for funding to support the District 7 Participatory Budgeting Program. I hope that other districts, as well as The City as a whole, will join me in this effective program to engage residents.

Norman Yee represents District 7 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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