The old saying “money can’t buy happiness” rings true when we look at spending on unwanted projects — like the recent demise of Sherwood Forest for a ball field in Waimanalo. The community is clearly opposed to the construction, and some residents have threatened to secede from the City and County of Honolulu.

When tensions escalate among communities concerning development, the government should examine what went wrong to prevent future costly mistakes. Fortunately, there is a solution which money can buy happiness and is currently implemented in over 3,000 cities around the world.

I first encountered the participatory budgeting concept in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. This process encourages community participation and pride while minimizing fraud and waste.

Cambridge identifies several broad categories for input on its website. As public suggestions accumulate, volunteers research potential ideas and finalize reasonable proposals.

Now in its sixth year, Cambridge consecutively increases the amount going toward participatory budgeting annually due to impressive voter turnout. Besides dedicating funds, government staff provide support and ensure the winning proposals become reality.

I thought to myself how Oahu could adopt something similar to reap positive results because participatory budgeting is a proven solution in many progressive cities throughout the United States.

A Big Picture Plan

My vision for initiating the process under the City and County of Honolulu comprises three parts: preparation, collaboration and implementation.

Preparation involves creating a website, deciding on appropriate amounts for each district under the City Council, and tasking neighborhood board members with outreach duties.

Collaboration would happen within a six-month period — from December to May — so implementation can proceed on July 1 when the next fiscal period begins.

During collaboration, neighborhood board members would continue their volunteer role as liaisons between the government and the community. Meanwhile, residents will have access to timely updates online rather than after-the-fact minutes.

Honolulu City Council member Joey Manahan listens to testimony on Bill 85 and 89 at Honolulu Hale.
Members of the Honolulu City Council listen to debate at Honolulu Hale Monday. The author has a tip on how the council can best handle its budget process. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If people are aware they have an influence over spending, they are more likely to participate and spread the word. Voting should be limited to within one’s district, however, residents are allowed unlimited suggestions to improve any of the nine districts. The reason being is that a person living at the edge of their district may feel that they belong to the neighboring district instead, and are thus able to offer valuable insights.

There is a chance to improve quality of life for everyone here and slow the exodus to the mainland.

Prioritizing participatory budgeting and getting the process running is an opportunity that will gather residents together to develop a shared vision for what matters in their communities. To avoid unnecessary expenses like paper waste, the city mainly budgets for website creation and maintenance where idea sharing and public voting ensue.

Hopefully, my simplified version of how I view participatory budgeting working on Oahu would gain traction among community members. Some indirect benefits may include improve voter turnout during elections and increase interest in attending neighborhood board meetings.

No further research is needed as a nonprofit organization. A participatory budgeting project offers resources and hosts training to assist with fine-tuning remaining details. Typing “participatory budgeting” in Google yields over 3 million results to answer your questions and feature numerous case studies with successful outcomes.

If we learn from other places and bring home effective solutions, perhaps there is a chance to improve quality of life for everyone here and slow the exodus to the mainland.

The City and County of Honolulu should embrace participatory budgeting in order to promote community involvement, accountability and transparency with regards to spending taxpayers’ money.

Imagine the possibility that funds go towards development projects the community actually wanted. When participatory budgeting is listed on the city budget, we plant the seeds for creative thinking, meaningful conversations, and innovative initiatives. Blaming the government ends when communication and cooperation take place between the community and decision makers.

Moreover, the government regains the public’s trust after listening to residents and addressing their concerns immediately. Ensuring a happy and healthy city with engaged and satisfied residents is the foundation for an intact Oahu.

Sometimes, money can buy happiness. Let’s start planning now by asking the City Council to give this budgeting solution a green light.

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