In recent years, Vallejo has been known mostly and sadly for the fact that it went bankrupt in 2008. Today, the beleaguered city on San Pablo Bay is making news for something innovative and exciting. It is holding a first-in-the-nation citywide experiment with direct democracy known as "participatory budgeting."
Beginning last Saturday and stretching eight days until this coming Saturday, every resident of Vallejo age 16 and older is eligible to vote for how the city should spend $3.2 million in sales tax money. Mobile voting units have been set up at City Hall, senior centers, high schools, churches and even grocery stores.
Residents proposed more than 800 spending ideas during workshops the city held over the past 10 months. The ideas were pared down to 33 specific projects that have been vetted and refined by the city staff to ensure that they are viable. Those projects and their price tags are on the ballot. Residents can vote for six.
The list is varied. It includes municipal staples such as pothole and street repair, estimated cost $550,000; street light improvements, $170,000; and more security cameras in high-crime areas, $450,000; as well as fun things such as a downtown flea market, $25,000; resurrection of the long-dormant Vallejo Blues and Heritage Festival, $92,000; and investment in city school marching and band programs, $200,000. A complete list can be found at www.pbvallejo.org.
Vallejo City Council Member Marti Brown, who brought the idea to the council, says participatory budgeting has been tried elsewhere on a smaller scale, specifically within council districts in New York and Chicago. But Vallejo is the first to host a citywide effort. It was not an easy sell. Some council members, including Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis, worried that the council was abdicating its responsibility to set city spending priorities.
Officially, however, the public vote is advisory only. The projects that get the most votes have to go before the City Council for final approval in June. While legally they can ignore the residents' priorities, Vallejo participatory budgeting participants think it would be political suicide for any council member who did so.
The money to fund the projects on the ballot comes from a sales tax boost Vallejo voters narrowly approved last November. Brown thinks allowing residents to decide how to spend a portion of the sales tax proceeds, real money for a change, would help rebuild trust in a local government "that's been through the wringer" in recent years and that it would promote civic engagement. She points to one initially skeptical resident turned enthusiastic supporter who told her, "I realize this is about so much more than money. Getting people involved in their community is priceless."
All projects listed on the ballot had to be one-time expenditures. They could not include anything that would saddle the city with ongoing obligations like salary and benefits for additional police officers or other city staff.
Local government leaders across Northern California are watching Vallejo's experiment closely. As they decide how to spend Measure U funds, Sacramento's City Council would be smart to check it out as well.