CLEVELAND — The energy in the Cleveland Public Auditorium was high as Cleveland City Council member Kris Harsh and one debate partner took on two members of citizen-led coalition People’s Budget CLE for a debate about Issue 38.

What You Need To Know

  • Issue 38, which would allow Cleveland residents ages 13 and older to vote on how 2% of the city’s budget is spent, was up for debate Tuesday

  • Proponents of the proposed charter amendment say the model encourages civic engagement and gives power back to residents

  • All 17 members of Cleveland City Council and union allies have come out against Issue 38, arguing it’s too risky to take the spending power away from those who were elected to represent their community

  • Clevelanders will vote on Issue 38 on Nov. 7.

What is Issue 38?

The issue is a charter amendment that would allow for participatory budgeting and will appear on the ballots of Clevelanders on Nov. 7.

If passed, the amendment would give residents age 13 and older the power to directly vote on how 2% of the city’s budget is spent each year.

Residents would come up with proposals and vote on their preferences through community meetings and a ballot. 

The process would be led by a committee of 11, appointed by the mayor's office and city council. 

The issue was brought forward by grassroots coalition People's Budget CLE, which sought to implement participatory budgeting in other ways earlier this year.

In their January proposal, a pilot program that sought less money from the city, PB CLE had the support of Mayor Justin Bibb and a few council members, but not enough to make it through council.

Now as a permanent change to the city's charter, Issue 38 has lost the support of Bibb and all council members. 

The debate

Jonathan Welle, one of the organizers with PB CLE who took part in the debate, said the model encourages civic engagement and gives power back to residents. 

“The people’s budget is a celebration of the wisdom and creativity that already exists within our community,” Welle said. “It’s a way for people to have real power to make real decisions over 2% of the city’s budget. It’s an expansion of democracy. It puts people over politicians. It put streets over stadiums, and it’s something we’ve needed for a long time in Cleveland.”

Harsh argued it would create too large a gap in the city’s general fund, which is how municipal employees are paid.

Union allies agree it’s too risky to take the spending power away from those who were elected to represent their community. 

“If people think about the substance of what we’ve said and really sleep on it tonight and think about it the next couple of weeks, they’ll come to the same conclusion I do,” Harsh said. “There’s lots of ways to promote democracy in our city, but taking 2% of the general fund and siphoning it away from services for the people of Cleveland is not the best way.”

Harsh said the amendment is written poorly, leaving the city at greater risk for corruption. 

Meanwhile, Welle said the reason the city deals with budget deficits in the first place is because of mismanagement of funds in city hall, adding that the amendment is written broadly so the city-appointed committee can help to create a process that works for Clevelanders.

He said there are safeguards in place to ensure this is above-board, like making the results of vote public and more.

“We can ask every member of the steering committee to sign an MOU, or something even stronger, an official contract, perhaps with the city of Cleveland, that spells out specifically their commitment to using transparent processes and to declaring any potential conflict of interest,” Welle said. “This is standard status quo stuff. 

Harsh claims the PB CLE coalition has too limited an understanding of city budgeting to successfully pull this off. 

“The problem is the way this charter was drafted,” Harsh said. “There's not enough financial oversight. It's going to be a $14 million hit to the general fund in a city that's already struggling, and we can't make up that loss to services.”

Anyone can view debate in full by visiting the city of Cleveland’s YouTube page.

What’s happening with PB in the statehouse?

In Columbus, State Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, introduced SB 158, which would ban participatory budgeting on the state level. 

If it passes, a people’s budget would not be able to be implemented, even if Clevelanders vote in support of it on Nov. 7.

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, the Ohio Senate passed SB 158 as an emergency measure, with 25 yeas and 6 nays. It now goes to the Ohio House for a vote.