I recently read a book called “Humankind: A Hopeful History,” and one chapter in particular caught my attention and imagination.
It was about the ordinarily uninspiring topic of budgeting, but it was captivating.
The story came from Torres, a small municipality in western Venezuela, where in 2004 voters had a dreary choice between a wealthy landowner backed by big commercial media and a challenger endorsed by socialist strongman Hugo Chávez’s powerful party. Either way, ruling elites would keep running the show.
There was, however, another little-known candidate named Julio Chávez (no relation), whose platform was simple: if elected mayor, he would hand over power to the citizens. No one took him seriously, but he received 35.6% of the vote in a three-way race.
He won by a whisker. Then he kept his word.
His revolution began with hundreds of meetings. Under fluorescent light and lukewarm coffee, residents were invited to spend 100% of the municipal budget, about $7 million.
The governor of the territory, horrified that his puppet had lost to the upstart, threatened to cut off funding. However, he backed down when hundreds of people marched in support of their budget.
Over the next 10 years, the area pulled off decades worth of progress, according to the book. Corruption went down and meaningful investment went up, with new schools, houses, roads and upkeep. Every year some 15,000 people provide input, with assemblies held in 560 locations across the municipality.
Participatory budgeting, where citizens engage in calm, deliberate and informed dialogue, “may sound dull, but it’s magic,” writes Rutger Bregman, author of “Humankind.”
In Brazil, this process increased civic trust. Engaged citizens began addressing each other as “companheiro,” meaning compatriot and brother. They even voted to increase their own taxes because they trusted the process, knew where the money would go, and had decided together to invest in the improvements they wanted.
Observers remarked that almost every person involved had something worthwhile to contribute, regardless of their level of education, as long as everyone was taken seriously.
It was a training ground for citizenship.
Inspired by this rosy vision of empowered citizen involvement, I applied this year to be a member of Lewis County’s citizen budget committee.
It was a great experience. I was deeply impressed by county budget officer Becky Butler, whose command of the intricacies of Lewis County’s $44 million budget was matched by a thoughtful, patient friendliness as we all ask questions and offered ideas.
I was also impressed with the other members of the citizen’s committee. I was pleased to see two of them stand up as contenders recently for the open third district county commission seat: Frank Corbin and Harry Bhagwandin. While they didn’t make the final cut, they would both be credible candidates next year.
As far as the process itself, I must admit that I wasn’t able to participate nearly as much as I would have liked in this participatory budget process. Work obligations limited me to just a few meetings.
Still, I learned a lot about the different county departments, their budget requests, and how the county goes about trying to be both responsible with taxpayer funds and responsive to county needs.
“A lot of times you hear things in the media about government and you don’t get a clear picture of all the great people involved to move the county forward,” County Commissioner Sean Swope told our group during our orientation. “You see different departments and department heads, the thought that goes into building a budget and fiscal responsibility that goes into this overall process.”
Corbin, a former city council member in Oregon before relocating to Lewis County, has been on the citizen’s budget committee for several years.
He said it’s like “drinking out of a firehose.”
Still, he said, “it’s a great opportunity to learn and serve. You really have a seat at the table.”
While our county is nowhere near the all-in participatory budgeting that I read about in South America, our citizen group had a real voice.
On our behalf, Corbin presented our recommendations to the county commission last week during an interactive public hearing.
We could see the thought that goes into budgeting as our elected officials took input and made decisions. There wasn’t universal agreement, but there was an honest effort to do their best.
I’d certainly recommend the citizen’s budget committee for anyone who wants to learn and be part of the process of ensuring responsible use of taxpayer funds. Take a look yourself at www.lewiscountywa.gov/departments/budget/.
Speaking of which, there is a very easy way for all of us to be part of a major investment of public funds.
The county has $15 million (!!!) in federal coronavirus relief funds to spend under the American Rescue Plan Act. That’s a huge windfall. Whatever your opinion on federal spending, it’s a fact that the county has that money coming and should invest it wisely.
The county has an online survey asking for input on how to spend the money. They have already received 674 responses. This is a great way to dip our collective toe into participatory budgeting.
You can add your perspective here: www.polco.us/lewiscoresopen through Dec. 10.
I commend our county leaders for listening. Let’s inform ourselves and then tell them things worth hearing.
With Thanksgiving coming up, I’d love to hear what or who makes you feel grateful here in Lewis County. Blessings are meant to be shared — please share them with me!
Brian Mittge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.