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DANTE RAMOS

Making local government engaging

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/file 2009

City Councilor Leland Cheung of Cambridge.

By Globe Staff 

SOMETHING UNUSUAL happened in Cambridge the other night: There was a public meeting about capital budgeting, and yet somehow there was electricity in the air.

Last year, Cambridge set aside $500,000 for one-time projects, solicited 380 proposals for how to use it, and set up a series of committees to winnow them down. Residents age 12 and up could choose among the 20 best pitches. More than 2,700 Cantabrigians voted, either on paper or online, and scores of people crowded a room at the Cambridge Senior Center Tuesday to await the results.

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Before the announcement, people posed for photos in front of display boards touting their favorite projects: laptops for a community learning center, free Wi-Fi in several locations, and more. Finally, assistant city manager Louis Depasquale produced forms identifying the winning projects — the top six vote-getters, which were then read out Oscar-style. Residents put a higher priority on 100 new trees, a $320,000 public toilet in Central Square, and $7,000 worth of books for children learning English than, say, on a $350,000 amphitheater in a park.

The initiative, known as “participatory budgeting,” echoes Boston’s Youth Lead the Change program, now in its second year, which enlists residents age 12 to 25 to decide how to spend $1 million annually in youth-oriented capital projects. These efforts don’t just provide street-level information about what residents want. They also provide something that communities throughout the Boston area badly need: an easy path into civic affairs for young people, new arrivals, and longtime residents who simply feel left out.

Public participation is a core theme of local government in Massachusetts, the cradle of the town meeting. The idea gained new urgency amid the neighborhood activism of the 1960s and ’70s. But while the format of the typical public hearing gives citizens a way to air grievances — about a budget plan, a specific policy, or a proposed development — it doesn’t leave them much room to flesh out workable alternatives. Discussion falls too easily into well-worn grooves; there’s that oh-here-it-comes moment when, during a Q-and-A period, someone takes the mic, turns to face the audience, and gives a long oration that’s all A and no Q. When meeting times are inconvenient to working people, when the results seem foreordained, when the same old battles are fought and refought in ways that baffle newcomers, the process is as likely to put people off as welcome them.

Contrast all that with the recent experience of Harvey Zeytuntsyan, who moved to Cambridge from Atlanta last fall and learned of the city’s budget initiative just by chance. He suggested a project — outdoor fitness equipment like what he’d seen in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park — but soon found himself drawn in deeper. He ended up serving on a committee vetting park-related initiatives, and he got to see city officials calculating hard costs — $65,000, in his case — for projects that citizens had proposed. “We learned a lot,” he says, “about what it takes to turn a cool idea into a proposal.”

The crowd Tuesday was both enthusiastic and unusually diverse, ethnically and generationally. “There are more people here now than have probably showed up to any finance meeting ever,” said City Councilor Leland Cheung, who brought the idea of participatory budgeting to Cambridge.

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And if participants buy into a larger civic mission, so much the better. Kelly Dolan, who has lived in Cambridge for 26 years and first got involved with the budget initiative in the hope of getting a park near her home fixed up, learned about youth centers she never knew existed. “I thought it was going to be a lot more about beautification and parks,” she said, “and it ended up being most about things people really need.”

Participatory budgeting is new enough in the United States that communities are still figuring out how to do it. Boston officials are using a Harvard scholar’s detailed evaluation of the first year of Youth Lead the Change to expand participation in the current round.

This fine-tuning points to a broader need for innovation in all the ways local governments interact with citizens. Facebook and Twitter abound with people pointing out nuts-and-bolts problems they’ve identified in their own communities, but those concerns filter imperfectly up to the people in charge. There are baby steps: Last year, North Andover took the unusual step of — gasp! — allowing e-mailed questions at town meeting. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh has done Twitter chats and a Reddit AMA.

Cambridge’s experiment shows there’s a public appetite for a deeper engagement, of a sort that extends well beyond simply attending meetings or tweeting into the ether.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.

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