Data

General Issues
Economics
Specific Topics
Budget - Local
Collections
University of Southampton Students
Location
California
United States
Scope of Influence
City/Town
Links
https://pbstanford.org/peoplesbudgetmerced
Merced County Participatory Budgeting Process Hits Snag, Plows Ahead
Start Date
Ongoing
Yes
Time Limited or Repeated?
A single, defined period of time
Purpose/Goal
Make, influence, or challenge decisions of government and public bodies
Approach
Co-governance
Consultation
Spectrum of Public Participation
Collaborate
Total Number of Participants
50000
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Limited to Only Some Groups or Individuals
Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
not
General Types of Methods
Public budgeting
Deliberative and dialogic process
General Types of Tools/Techniques
Manage and/or allocate money or resources
Facilitate decision-making
Inform, educate and/or raise awareness
Specific Methods, Tools & Techniques
Participatory Budgeting
SMS (Text Messaging)
Civic Education
Social Media
Legality
Yes
Facilitators
Yes
Facilitator Training
Trained, Nonprofessional Facilitators
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
Both
Types of Interaction Among Participants
Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
Express Opinions/Preferences Only
Information & Learning Resources
Written Briefing Materials
Video Presentations
Decision Methods
Voting
If Voting
Preferential Voting
Communication of Insights & Outcomes
Traditional Media
New Media
Type of Organizer/Manager
Local Government
Individual
Type of Funder
Regional Government
Local Government
Staff
No
Volunteers
Yes
Types of Change
Changes in civic capacities
Implementers of Change
Elected Public Officials

CASE

Participatory Budgeting in Merced County, California

January 13, 2020 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
November 29, 2019 m.f.zadra
July 16, 2018 Scott Fletcher, Participedia Team
July 15, 2018 Scott Fletcher, Participedia Team
January 16, 2018 George.Evans
General Issues
Economics
Specific Topics
Budget - Local
Collections
University of Southampton Students
Location
California
United States
Scope of Influence
City/Town
Links
https://pbstanford.org/peoplesbudgetmerced
Merced County Participatory Budgeting Process Hits Snag, Plows Ahead
Start Date
Ongoing
Yes
Time Limited or Repeated?
A single, defined period of time
Purpose/Goal
Make, influence, or challenge decisions of government and public bodies
Approach
Co-governance
Consultation
Spectrum of Public Participation
Collaborate
Total Number of Participants
50000
Open to All or Limited to Some?
Limited to Only Some Groups or Individuals
Recruitment Method for Limited Subset of Population
not
General Types of Methods
Public budgeting
Deliberative and dialogic process
General Types of Tools/Techniques
Manage and/or allocate money or resources
Facilitate decision-making
Inform, educate and/or raise awareness
Specific Methods, Tools & Techniques
Participatory Budgeting
SMS (Text Messaging)
Civic Education
Social Media
Legality
Yes
Facilitators
Yes
Facilitator Training
Trained, Nonprofessional Facilitators
Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
Both
Types of Interaction Among Participants
Discussion, Dialogue, or Deliberation
Express Opinions/Preferences Only
Information & Learning Resources
Written Briefing Materials
Video Presentations
Decision Methods
Voting
If Voting
Preferential Voting
Communication of Insights & Outcomes
Traditional Media
New Media
Type of Organizer/Manager
Local Government
Individual
Type of Funder
Regional Government
Local Government
Staff
No
Volunteers
Yes
Types of Change
Changes in civic capacities
Implementers of Change
Elected Public Officials

A county-wide participatory budgeting initiative that failed to take off and ended up only being implemented in one district. Despite the lack of confidence expressed by other city officials, the Supervisors of District 2 went ahead with the Public Budget which was successful.

Problems and Purpose

In June of 2017 Merced County, California, decided that $200,000 in 'discretionary funds' would be used for a participatory budgeting pilot. Each district in the County would be allotted $40,000 for allocation by residents towards community projects through idea proposals and voting. The primary advocates for this experiment in participatory democracy were District supervisors Rodrigo Espinoza and Lee Lor, who attempted to convince their fellow County officials to adopt the policy [1]. Unfortunately, a long-running debate over the use of discretionary funds ended in a 3-2 vote against Espinoza and Lor. However, the two Supervisors - of Districts 1 and 2, respectively - decided to go ahead with the participatory budget although only District 2 had enough extra funding to support it in the first year (2018). 

Background History and Context

Merced County is situated in central California, with a population of around 250,000 people. Other than their two main cities of Merced and Los Banos, Merced county is considered to be fairly rural, with said cities taking up around half of the entire counties population. Merced county is governed by a board of supervisors, consisting of five people, two of which are the aforementioned Espinoza and Lor. The allocation of $40,000 in discretionary funds annually for "special board projects" has been a point of contention among County supervisors with critics - Supervisor Daron McDaniel among them - reportedly denouncing the practice as "a public slush fund with little or no oversight that allowed supervisors to do favors for politically-supportive groups at the taxpayers’ expense."[5] According to a September 2017 report in the Merced Sun-Star, "The previous board in December adopted new policies, which included putting the money back in the general fund if it wasn’t used. The board must approve spending of discretionary funding, but individual supervisors nominate projects to receive funding."[5] Held that same month, a vote on the continuation of the practice and of the use of participatory budgeting as advocated by Espinoza and Lor won 3-2. Despite this setback, Espinoza and Lor went ahead with participatory budgeting in their districts, using rollover funds and (reportedly) handouts from non-profit organisations and local firms[2].

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

Rodrigo Espinoza has been a major driver behind the idea to allow citizens to direct the allocation of discretionary funds. Espinoza is mayor of Livingston working as a farmer of peaches and almonds in the district. In the past, Espinoza has been critical of the discretionary spending, state that they should be used to fund “at least two sheriff deputy positions”[3]. The other key motivator behind the participatory budgeting scheme was supervisor Lee Lor, Supervisor of Merced County District 2 and executive director of the Merced County Education Foundation which works with the County education department to assist families in sending their children to extracurricular activities. When asked about the discretionary funds and what she would do with them in the run up to the election for Merced County Supervisor, Lor said “After this election, should a majority of the supervisors vote to keep the discretionary funds, I would create a more open process for constituents to apply for funds.”[4] Quoted at the same time as Espinoza advocated giving the funds to the sheriffs office, Lor appears to have been the first to float the idea of public budgeting.

After the vote against the use of discretionary funding, lead opposition member Daron McDaniel accused Espinoza of breaking his campaign promise. Espinoza acknowledged this change of heart but noted that “I have an obligation to the citizens of my district. You can let a lot of people down [and] they’re very hopeful in this [participatory budgeting] process”[5]. After losing the vote and their discretionary funding for the year, Lor and Espinoza looked to other ways of funding the participatory budget. Lor claims to have enough funds left over to do two years’ worth of participatory budgeting in her district although it only appears to have lasted one year. For his part, Espinoza stated that he will support Lor in her efforts for the 2018 participatory budget but would wait to implement it in his own district until he had more funding. 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The participatory budgeting in Merced County was overseen by a Steering Committee, along with the two supervisors Lee Lor and Rodrigo Espinoza. Citizens had to apply via application form, and should they be accepted, they would serve from July 2017 to July 2018. Only residents of District 1 and District 2 could apply to be in the steering committee, and there was a call for non-profits, community organisations and public agencies also serving in either District 1 or 2 to apply, especially if associated with immigrants, formerly jailed or homeless individuals, and the youth.

The Steering Committee had set out several responsibilities for potential committee members, essentially necessary criteria to be accepted. These responsibilities included: attending two workshops in the first month to help design the participatory budgeting process, attend a monthly meeting throughout the year to oversee progress and alter the process if necessary, provide specialised support for the process (using your organisation’s resources), and to promote the whole process to the previously mentioned underrepresented sections of society. All applications were reviewed by the two supervisors spearheading the whole project, Lor and Espinoza[6].

Back when the idea for this steering committee was made, the whole of Merced County was the target for participatory budgeting, however as the vote to continue receiving discretionary funds failed, that is no longer the case[7]. With only District 2 under Lee Lor currently having any form of participatory budgeting, this committee is therefore overseeing the people of district 2 and their ideas on how to distribute $40,000 to make Merced County, or part of it, better. They have named their participatory budgeting project “the peoples budget”, and their slogan is “community, unity, for improvement”[8]. Besides the Steering Committee, the only participants are the residents of District 2 in Merced County. Due to the fact that the other supervisors either voted against participatory budgeting or didn’t have the funds to do so, only these residents in district 2 have a say.

Methods and Tools Used

The People's Budget is, at its core, an example of participatory budgeting: a method of democratic innovation broadly described as "a decision-making process through which citizens deliberate and negotiate over the distribution of public resources." There are many benefits associated with participatory budgeting including increased civic and democratic education; increased government transparency; and an increased opportunity for participation by historically marginalized populations.[14] 

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

The goal set by the People’s Budget is for at least 200 people to submit an idea as to what they think some of the $40,000 budget should be spent on in District 2. Participants were able to submit ideas over text message, via email, on a dedicated website, or by going in-person to one of the idea forums. Idea forums were held at the end of 2017, between the 25th of October until the 8th November. Four forums took place in this time, spread out across the region to encourage participation of all residents. Each forum lasted at least 3-hours which gave the Steering Committee and Supervisor Lor enough time to hear the ideas and proposals of as many residents as possible.

Once collected, the Steering Committee used their various expertise to turn ideas into fully fledged proposals - both financially and practically feasible. District 2 inhabitants over the age of 16 were then able to vote on the final projects with those at the top being funded and implemented over the next few years. Ideas voted on ranged from community gardens, to homeless shelters, and solar panels. Lee Lor has also been present at all of these forums, and has been the one to advertise each meeting on her Facebook[9]. Lor has been the key throughout all of this, and in terms of public engagement she brings the same amount of effort. There is no central page on Facebook, or any other for that matter, where dates of meetings are uploaded, updates on said times, and feedback from such forums. Supervisor Lor does it all and it is highly doubtful the public would have any knowledge without her efforts.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Voting ended in July 2018 and the results have not yet been announced as of this entry's last update. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Public Attitudes

Initially, when the idea of participatory budgeting was for the whole of Merced County, it was received by the public quite well. They were proud to join a list of large, well known states in enhancing their own democratic input, and also proud to be the first place in the Center Valley in California to bring in such a measure. However, they were slightly apprehensive with this measure in some areas. There was an issue as to whether those on the Steering Committee would be able to put forward ideas of their own, as this would mean that they could create an idea then push it through into being a full project proposal. Another issue was how some didn’t like the fact that they were deciding on what to do with the money whatsoever[10]. They felt that the reason they were voting in these supervisors was because they believed in them to take care of things like budgets on their behalf – “Equating investment to participation can be controversial”[11].

However, the effect it had when the idea of participatory democracy was taken away from the whole of Merced County was greater than that of when it was introduced. In some of the letters to the editor of the Merced Sun Star newspaper, this feeling of loss was prevalent. One noted “Merced County was on the verge of making history” and “Merced County would have been the first ever county of our size to implement participatory budgeting”[12]. Another put it “Don’t take residents out of the budgeting process”[13]. The attitudes of the public were in fact one of the reasons that the participatory budgeting didn’t take place across the whole of Merced County, as supervisor McDaniel voted against it due to campaign promises he had made and feared the backlash of, should he U-turn. In terms of the other key actors, you would say that even though Espinoza and his district will not be able to fund participatory budgeting, he was still in favour of it right until the discretionary funds were dissolved. The main actor in all of this was of course Lee Lor, who almost singlehandedly has gifted her district with an enhanced level of democracy, despite the fact that she is alone in her venture, and the whole scheme was voted out of contention by her fellow supervisors.

Lessons Learned

If this process were to be done again, the main point would have to be the fact that they had planned for the whole of Merced County to participate, until the idea was floated to instead dissolve the discretionary funds altogether. Part of the problem here was certain members of the board worrying about their re-election, a better way to introduce this type of project across the whole county is to bring up the idea after an election, where some more supervisors are willing to give it a go. Another way to increase participation would have to be more media coverage. Whilst it is only district 2 taking part, there still needs to be a more centralised media platform to spread the news of the People’s Budget: where/ when its taking place, description of its process, and perhaps a platform for an online discussion to take place. The only main site for a Merced Citizen to find such details is the Facebook page of Lee Lor. What if you don’t have/ use Facebook? What if you aren’t aware of Lor’s page? A more centralised page for the People’s Budget itself would help. That being said, one cannot condemn the efforts of Lee Lor, for without her commendable efforts this People’s Budget scheme would not last very long, if at all. She is responsible for, but not limited to: the idea of the Participatory budgeting, the determination to run it without the consent/ backing of her colleagues on the board of supervisors, all advertisement of the scheme itself, and the collection of ideas. It is remarkable that thousands of people’s democratic involvement will benefit almost solely off the back of one person.[i]

See Also

Participatory Budgeting 

References

[1] Barela, B. (2017). County leaders end controversial fund. Available: http://mercedcountytimes.net/editorials/091417_deal.html. Last accessed 09/11/17. [DEAD LINK]

[2] McKenzie, J. (2017). Merced County Participatory Budgeting Hits Snag, Plows Ahead. Available: https://civichall.org/civicist/merced-county-participatory-budgeting-pro.... Last accessed 09/11/17.

[3] (2016). Rodrigo Espinoza - Candidate for District 1. Available: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/article74315767.html. Last accessed 09/11/17.

[4] (2016). Lee Lor - Candidate for District 2. Available: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/politics-government/election/local-ele.... Last accessed 09/11/17.

[5] Calix, B. (2017). Debate gets heated as county leaders end controversial funds. Available: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/latest-news/article172889841.html. Last accessed 09/11/17.

[6] (2017). Participatory Budgeting Comes to Merced County. Available: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Join-Us-in-Launching-Participatory-Bu.... Last accessed 09/11/17.

[7] McKenzie, J. (2017). Merced County Participatory Budgeting Hits Snag, Plows Ahead. Available: https://civichall.org/civicist/merced-county-participatory-budgeting-pro.... Last accessed 09/11/17.

[8] (2017). Merced County Supervisor Lee Lor, District 2 Facebook Page. Available: https://www.facebook.com/LeeLorMercedCountySupervisorDistrict2/. Last accessed 10/11/2017.

[9] (2017). Merced County Supervisor Lee Lor, District 2 Facebook Page. Available: https://www.facebook.com/LeeLorMercedCountySupervisorDistrict2/. Last accessed 10/11/2017.

[10] Miller, J. (2017). Supervisors tout ‘Participatory Budgeting’ to local residents. Available: http://www.bhcmerced.org/2017/06/supervisors-tout-participatory-budgetin.... Last accessed 10/11/2017.

[11] Smith, G. (2009). Democratic Innovations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p182.

[12] Reding, N. (2017). Three Merced supervisors took that money away from all of us. Available: http://www.bhcmerced.org/2017/09/nancy-reding-three-merced-supervisors-t.... Last accessed 10/11/2017.

[13] Cardona, N. (2017). Don’t take residents out of the budgeting process. Available: http://www.bhcmerced.org/2017/09/norma-c-cardona-dont-take-residents-out.... Last accessed 10/11/2017.

External Links

County Website: http://www.countyofmerced.com/

Lee Lor's Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/LeeLorMercedCountySupervisorDistrict2/

Notes