A participatory economy in Paterson is worth considering

April 25, 2023 7:00 am

The City of Paterson has been plagued by public corruption scandals. Paterson City Hall is pictured. (Photo by Edwin J. Torres | NJ Governor’s Office)

Corruption is the worst-kept secret in New Jersey, and Paterson is its poster child. Pick a department and you will be presented with a plethora of cases of mismanagement, corruption, and abuse.

In the Department of Economic Development, Paterson’s assistant zoning officer Jose Fermin was recently arrested and charged with numerous second-degree crimes, including bribery and conspiracy. Responsible for granting zoning permits in the city, Fermin is accused, among other things, of selling off forged documents to yet-to-be-named co-conspirators. In a city where LLCs have been buying up much of the city in recent years and residents have long complained about deplorable housing conditions, this kind of corruption raises serious alarms.

You would be hard-pressed to find any ethical component of the Paterson Police Department. I will save you the time and just name two of its most egregious problems. The city of Paterson, meaning its residents who are the ones who foot the bills, spends about a million dollars a year to settle misconduct lawsuits. This should come as no surprise given that the Paterson police department has had no less than nine federal indictments and convictions of its officers in just three short years.

With seemingly no accountability to their constituents, city officials are laughing to the bank.

On March 14, Finance Director Javier Silva mocked public outcry as he leaned over his phone and laughed while people were calling for justice in the police killing of Najee Seabrooks. Called out by community members to put his phone down and listen attentively, Silva giggled before being confronted by Councilman Mike Jackson.

If Silva can feel comfortable enough to laugh in the face of dozens of people calling for justice, what can residents expect from this finance director overlooking a $300 million-plus city budget?

Economic equity is an immutable part of racial and social justice. It is why racial inequity always aligns with economic injustice, a reality made so blatantly clear in Paterson. For example, the city allocates around $50 million of the city’s budget for the police to militarize themselves, all the while the city’s libraries and recreation and housing departments count on a few million dollars between themselves.

Economic justice has been a longstanding albeit forgotten element of racial justice. In his much celebrated yet selectively remembered “I Have a Dream” speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on economic justice, setting off the Poor Peoples Campaign shortly before his assassination.

What would economic justice in the name and legacy of MLK look like for a city plagued by corrupt city officials?

Enter participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting, sometimes called people’s budgets/economies, is a form of direct or pure democracy. Participatory budgeting is premised on the idea that the conventional democratic process is highly stratified and stagnant.

Porto Alegre, one of Brazil’s largest cities, introduced participatory budgeting in 1989. A city of 1.4 million residents, for more than 30 years, it has relied on its own citizens to allocate a percentage of the city’s budget. Unsurprisingly, this has led to increased funding for health care and social services throughout the city. Since then, numerous cities around the world have turned to participatory budgeting, including many here in the United States.

In 2022, Cambridge, Massachusetts, completed its ninth participatory budgeting cycle. Allocating $1 million for this process, the city of just over 100,000 people approved funding for better bicycle lanes, water fountains, and other beautifying projects.

Since 2011, New York City has counted on participatory budgeting in several council districts across the city. Each year, residents of these districts decide on the allocation of around $35 million.

What would it mean to implement a participatory budgeting economy in Paterson? In a city where property is sold off to absentee owners and corporate-backed developers looking to make a killing on the housing market at the expense of longtime residents, participatory budgeting would bring important economic decisions directly to the people instead of government officials and their cronies.

We can imagine people choosing to redirect more funding to libraries and recreation, departments that today count on a measly 1 to 3% of the city’s budget. We can imagine Patersonians deciding to fund nonviolent crisis intervention teams like the Paterson Healing Collective, of which Seabrooks was a member.

A common trend in participatory budgets around the nation and the world sees communities fund and support projects and resources centered on community care instead of more tax breaks for developers, the militarization of the police, and salary increases for city officials.

Einstein defines insanity as repeating the same process and expecting different results. Expecting politicians to solve the crisis they put us in time and time again would fall under this definition. It’s time for participatory budgeting in Paterson.


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