9th District Councilmember-elect Rex Richardson isn’t just ready to take his new office on July 15—he’s ready to hit the ground running. With a series of key initiatives already underway to ease the transition between current Councilmember Steve Neal and himself, Richardson is planning to continue the progressive processes and projects that have been ongoing for the last few years in North Long Beach, starting first by putting the District’s infrastructure funds directly in the hands of his constituents.
“Neal placed a focus [during his term] on organizing residents and in addition to the quarterly North Long Beach assembly, we’ve gone from six neighborhood organizations to 11 or 12 today,” said Richardson. “All of that sets up for a more engaged community that can take on larger projects. The foundation has been laid under Neal and my role is to think bigger and grow the momentum that’s happening here.”
Richardson’s first step was to create an “Empower Uptown Transition Team,” a hand-picked group of residents, business owners, clergy members and nonprofit managers who will lay the groundwork for participatory budgeting in the 9th District.
Participatory budgeting is a relatively new (but already White House-approved) civic engagement process that will be used to decide how the District’s annual $250,000 infrastructure funds are allocated. Under the process—which has been used in Chicago, New York and Vallejo but until now never in Southern California—a group of local stakeholders define the rules of the budgeting process and then take it to the greater popularion who vote on, develop and vet all the individual projects themselves.
The Empower Uptown team, then, is spending the next few weeks determining those rules, such as when and where they want to host a series of assemblies, defining who will be eligible to vote on these projects, and coming up with a short list of potential priorities—from sidewalk and street repaving to lighting and security cameras to setting aside funds for the new Houghton Park Community Center—that residents will then be able to vote on.
“This is me taking my power as a councilmember and giving it to the people and saying, ‘What do you think?’ For me it’s a simple decision,” said Richardson. “It’s essentially an elaborate survey and while you’re checking appetites on projects, you can ask attitudes on policy. If residents develop projects, it gets them engaged in discussion in a meaningful way so I’m not just spoon-feeding them my agenda.”
Of course previous councilmembers have engaged their constituents in various projects throughout the years, but never before with the intense relinquishing of control that participatory budgeting advocates. 5th District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske often holds community meetings to gauge opinions on important fiscal topics such as the annual City budget; 2nd District Councilemember Suja Lowenthal recently hosted a series of visioning surveys for the Broadway corridor to get input from residents; and even Neal has taken a survey on which streets in the 9th District residents thought should be re-paved.
But placing all of the budgeting responsibility directly in the hands of the people who the spending will affect is a far more intense process, one that Richardson says the 9th District is ready for.
“I’ve learned from Gerrie, James and Suja who have done similar budget engagement things before and I know my community and I know they’re ready for some more,” he said. “They want to get involved in changing North Long Beach so this project works perfectly.”
Beyond his transition team and bringing participatory budgeting to SoCal for the first time, Richardson wants to continue the Uptown Renaissance that is currently underway in North Long Beach. With a newly completed fire station, multiple updated parks, a new library under construction, a much-needed update to Jordan High School, a new business improvement district and the Atlantic Ave. rehabilitation project almost finished, this area of the city has the potential to again shine for residents and visitors in a way it has not in decades.
“The community is not made up of incidences of crime or buildings. It’s people,” Richardson said. “And the way you change and empower a community is to change the people. We have to empower residents to do things themselves.”