by Lara McCaffrey / Empower San Diego / May 10, 2012
City Council will hold an evening hearing so working persons can attend to address the lack of public participation in San Diego budget making decisions
At the recommendation of a group of more than 40 community-based organizations, the Community Budget Alliance (CBA), the San Diego City Council has agreed to hold its final budget hearing on May 14th at 6PM to encourage people with day jobs to attend. CBA hopes this will encourage future efforts to offer more opportunities for people to get involved with the budget making process.
Increasing citizen participation in budget decisions is a focus of CBA because they feel San Diego’s process lacks constituent input. “If working people are going to go to a city council hearing, they’re not going to be able to go at 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” says Emily Serafy Cox of CBA member organization Empower San Diego. “Evening meetings are a standard procedure for government agencies to get public input–everyone knows that.”
Government entities like the Redistricting Commission have held the majority of their hearings in the evening for the sole purpose of increasing input from citizens unaffiliated with a non-profit organization. Meetings held in the afternoon are usually only available to people like professionals who attend city council meetings as a part of their jobs.
Although evening meetings seem to encourage more public input, the results of evening meetings like the San Diego Speaks series held two years ago have created conflicting opinions. San Diego Speaks was a series of evening meetings initiated by Council President Tony Young to offer community members a chance give input on the budget. Serafy Cox reported hearing negative comments about how useful these sessions actually were: the turnout was lower than expected and the same speakers would always attend. “Interestingly from my perspective–in my experience we had fewer speakers at night for just a regular council meeting,” says District Three Councilmember, Todd Gloria. “If you were to look at the non-agenda public comment held on Tuesday and Thursday there are some individuals who will alway be there so it’s a little difficult to tell.” “But the City is not a community organizer,” says Serafy Cox. She argues that the City simply doesn’t have the outreach setup to turnout large numbers of their constituents.
Although one evening hearing is not sufficient to truly have a community based budget decision making process, it is a step in the right direction. “The City Council holds evening meetings at 6:00 pm, once every two months to allow for greater community access to their regular meetings,” says Trinh Le of CBA member organization Center on Policy Initiatives. “We would like to see efforts like that expanded–-including regular evening hearings while the budget is being developed.”
Gloria argues that although an evening hearing is a good way for people with 9 to 5 jobs to voice their opinions, it is not the only way. “I would say in 2012 there’s multiple ways for people to connect with their elected officials,” says Gloria. “I find that I get a great deal of feedback via email via Facebook and Twitter and I would hope that in whatever format they feel comfortable, people are providing feedback.” Gloria also stated that he held a town hall meeting in his district on Saturday, May 5th regarding the budget.
The May 14th meeting is expected to have a presentation by City staff with a general overview of the Fiscal Year 2013 proposed budget. Serafy Cox expects much of the testimony from the audience to encompass the ideas that CBA has put forward: to increase community participation, increase transparency, and equity in terms of investing in the community. However, turnout is expected to be lower than previous years. “Because of the nature of this year’s budget proposal, specifically it’s a budget proposal with service enhancements as opposed to cuts we’ve seen in recent years, I suspect there will be fewer people than there might have been [if there was] a suggestion to close down a library,” says Gloria.
The budget for next year will go through finalization steps after May 14th. At the end of May, Mayor Jerry Sanders will revise the budget based on updated data on revenues and expenditures. A final 2013 Fiscal Year Plan will be passed in June.