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Participatory budgeting is what democracy looks like

Chicago City Hall
(Rich Hein/Sun-Times)

Follow @csteditorialsAt a time when the public is rightfully demanding a greater role in government decision-making, I found your April 21 editorial (“Take another toy away from our aldermen”) oddly dismissive of “participatory budgeting.” This is the process in which eight of my City Council colleagues and I give the people of our wards the power to decide by direct popular vote how to spend our “menu money,” the $1.3 million annual budget each alderman receives for infrastructure projects in their ward.

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Though you praise participatory budgeting as a “wholesome exercise in grassroots democracy,” you ultimately conclude that unelected and unaccountable “city engineers” are in a better position than the people themselves to determine how their tax dollars should be spent in their neighborhoods.

Former Ald. Joe Moore.
Ald. Joe Moore | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times
Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

Perhaps it’s because your editorial fails to understand how the “PB” process works. You write that in participatory budgeting the alderman draws up a slate of possible uses of the funds and most projects get on the list because of citizen complaints.

In fact, community resident volunteers develop the proposed projects in a five-month long deliberative process, based primarily on input gathered at community meetings held throughout the ward, and with the advice and assistance of city staff, including city engineers.

In short, the community drives the participatory budgeting process, not the alderman or city bureaucrats. And it’s the community that ultimately decides by a ward-wide vote, which of the proposed projects are deserving of their tax dollars.

Each year my ward residents have voted to allocate the vast majority of our ward’s menu money to maintaining our basic infrastructure, such as streets, alleys, sidewalks and, streetlights.

My constituents in their collective wisdom also have voted to allocate a small portion of the ward budget to new playgrounds, trees, murals, and yes, even the occasional decorative garbage can. They recognize these less traditional infrastructure projects also contribute to the quality of life in our urban neighborhood.

You may disagree with my constituents’ priorities. But ultimately, it’s their money and their call. Isn’t that what democracy should look like?

Joe Moore, alderman,

49th Ward

Wasteful spending

Patronage jobs almost gone? Patronage jobs in Chicago are alive and well, and that is the only way the Democratic Party has its stranglehold on Chicago politics for so long. The quality of work through patronage is substandard because patronage sponsors relieve city workers from any chance of being fired. Through patronage, four or five workers are hired for jobs that can be done by one person. Just open your eyes and look around for the waste.

Wasteful spending on decorative garbage cans and beautification projects of murals and flower planters could be spent on more important infrastructure projects. The politicians are not being transparent in regard to useless programs and are not accountable for implementing cash cow programs for their own benefit.

Dan Bartoszewski, Irving Park

Donate the money

As a 1980 graduate of Northeastern Illinois University, I have a few comments: for the life of me today, I do not remember who the “prominent” speaker at my graduation ceremony was, or even if there was one. I DO remember clearly, nearly 40 years later, sitting at the ceremony and thinking that all I wanted was to walk on stage, wave to my daughters, get my diploma and go home to celebrate. No long speeches — by anyone, thank you. A better idea for any college would be to take that loose $30,000 and make a gift to a food pantry or a homeless shelter in the name of that year’s graduating class. A much better way to spend the money, for the betterment of many others, than into one rich person’s pocket.

Maria Zajczenko-Varela, Logan Square

Inaccurate generalities

Reading Mona Charen’s column about Saturday’s March for Science in the paper today, I was struck by the number of assumptions and generalities that she made regarding science and its practice in the column. The sheer number of inaccurate generalities demonstrated how important scientific literacy is in our society. At its heart, science is a socially driven activity. This cultural-embeddedness means that, try as we may, science is going to be an inherently political activity. The act of performing research and what topics should be explored will always be political since we as a society, through our government institutions, make these priorities. It is important that the members of our society are scientifically literate so that they can objectively use the products of our research efforts to decide our nation’s next scientific steps. The March is about advocating that our leaders are scientifically literate and use these skills when crafting policy instead of using science as a weapon.

The politics of science and those who practice it are not as divisive as Ms. Charen portrayed, and I would recommend that anyone who disagrees visit the Chicago March for Science to learn about the politics of science from the scientists and science educators of Chicago first hand.

Ryan Kamphuis, Bridgeport

Willful misunderstanding

Presumably, anyone who earns a senior-level fellowship at the Ethics and Public Policy Center would have to be possessed of at least a modicum of intelligence. I can therefore only assume that Mona Charen’s April 21 op-ed critiquing the Science March is based in a willful misunderstanding of the March’s objectives, rather than a genuine inability to follow the arguments that the March organizers set forth.

Ms. Charen criticizes the group’s stated goal calling “for science that upholds the common good” by stating: “Yeah. I know loads of people who oppose the ‘common good,’ don’t you?”

I would argue that the answer to this question depends on how you define “common good.” If we assume that the “common good” involves having clean air and water, enough food to eat, a safe place to sleep, and reasonable assurance that one will not die from entirely preventable diseases, then it would seem as though the current administration is indeed putting ideology and corporate profit ahead of the common good.

Some brief examples:

In March, President Trump signed an executive order beginning the work of rescinding the Clean Power Plan, which sought to decrease carbon dioxide emissions (a major cause of global warming) from power plants. That same month, he released a preliminary budget that featured deep cuts to the EPA and NOAA.

Scott Pruitt, whom this administration appointed as head of the EPA, and who also argued that mercury poses no appreciable health hazards (the WHO disagrees) insisted as recently as his confirmation hearing that “the ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that [human] impact [upon climate change], and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.”

This stands in stark contrast to the assertions of 97 percent of climate scientists and ALL worldwide scientific association, which have WITHOUT EXCEPTION stated that human-induced increases in greenhouse emissions are the primary driver behind global warming and that global warming will have catastrophic ecological consequences worldwide. In addition, they have delineated very clear guidelines for slowing global warming by curbing greenhouse emissions.

In an apparent bid to ignore this overwhelming scientific consensus, Ms. Charen tosses about the words “confirmation crisis” and “replication bias.” A 2013 metanalysis in the the Journal Environmental Research Letters examined 11,944 climate research studies from 1991-2011 and concluded that over 97% endorsed the consensus position that global warming is, indeed, caused by humans. Twelve thousand (published!) research studies can hardly be called a “confirmation crisis.”

And while replication bias is a real issue in research, Ms. Charen would do well to remember that, according to the Pew Research Center, only slightly more than half of all scientists describe themselves as liberal – and surely, they aren’t the only ones whose climate change data is being published.

Ms. Charen goes on to criticize the Science March for also addressing the travel ban. The connection was clear to me, but even a simple Google search clearly shows the connection between the two. According to the National Science Foundation, 18% of scientists and engineers residing in the United States in 2013 were immigrants, and in 2008, nearly 60% of postdoctoral fellows in the life sciences in the U.S. were temporary residents.

As Ms. Charen holds a liberal arts B.A. and a J.D., she probably doesn’t fully understand the critical contributions that postdoctoral fellows make in any science research lab (they, and graduate students, are certainly the ones who keep the lab running), but I can assure her that the prolific research output of U.S. universities will most certainly be adversely affected by any and all travel bans.

She then accedes that some of the more egregious statements of our President have been, in fact, egregious (see e.g., climate change as a Chinese ruse, and vaccinations as being the cause of ASD) but then goes on to say that “he hasn’t said those things lately.” I actually have no words for this example of the GOP’s complete unwillingness to hold the administration responsible for any of their words or actions.

Charen wraps up by accusing “progressives” of “cherry-picking” the science they like and disregard[ing] the science that confounds their worldview,” stating that progressive scientists 1. reject nuclear power (the relative risks and benefits of which continue to be subject to careful research and discussion in the scientific community), 2. ignore evidence of male/female brain differences (the verdict is still out on this one, with studies producing conflicting evidence), 3. reject GMOs (actually, respected medical associations including the AMA and the WHO have stated conclusively that GMOs are safe for human consumption), and 4. ignore health risks of hormone therapy in order to defend transgender rights (pediatricians and endocrinologists actually readily acknowledge the fact that there is a dearth of data on the long-term effects of using puberty blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy, which is why patient/parent education and careful weighing of the physical and emotional risks and benefits of transitioning are an important part of any treatment protocol for transgender youth).

I understand that journalistic integrity requires that you give the floor equally to opposing viewpoints. But perhaps the next time the Sun-Times chooses to devote an entire page of content to an op-ed writer, they could stick with someone who can be bothered to do some basic research before forming an opinion, and who remembers at least the basics from their undergrad Intro to Logic class.

Mirjam Quinn, Oak Lawn

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