Mayor Cooper at the participatory budgeting launch in February

Whitney Pastorek stepped down May 13 after three months as chair of the steering committee for the city’s latest participatory budgeting cycle. Her parting words cast the program as political theater in which officials offered “crumbs” of investment to distract from a larger agenda favorable to corporations and real estate developers. Councilmembers, the mayor’s office and incoming chair Jason Sparks have defended the program, acknowledging its bureaucracy as a necessary facet of democracy.

Nashville first experimented with participatory budgeting in 2021, when the Metro Council allocated $2 million to fund projects in Bordeaux and North Nashville proposed and voted on by residents. Another $2 million came in 2022. This money funded playground equipment, bus shelters, air conditioning at the Looby Community Center, and speed bumps in Bordeaux Hills, among other improvements. Each year, councilmembers vie for neighborhood improvements by submitting projects to the city’s capital improvements budget and capital spending plan. In February, the mayor’s office upped the pool to $10 million and expanded the program countywide. Councilmembers helped recruit interested residents like Pastorek to represent each of Metro’s 35 districts on a steering committee, which was then tasked by the mayor’s office with approving guidelines that would govern the yearslong process to solicit, approve and fund city projects.

“I’m a fan of participatory budgeting, and I think a lot more money should be going to it,” District 21 Councilmember Brandon Taylor tells the Scene after Pastorek’s departure. His constituents participated in the first two cycles, which brought improvements to his district in North Nashville. “I fight hard to get things we need in North Nashville, but it takes a while to get anything.”

Supporters tout the program as proof of citizen-led direct democracy. Critics, including some former participants, describe participatory budgeting as a bureaucratic and time-consuming way to address obvious community needs. Some say it takes public pressure to deliver equitable investment off the city’s existing attempt at democracy: a 40-person council, a mayor and a vice mayor elected every four years to collect and allocate public resources. 

“I had serious moral and ethical concerns that I was not able to reconcile,” Pastorek told the Scene a few days after she stepped down as chair. “I thought this would be a genuine, community-driven process in which a room full of people would talk about their values and the priorities of their individual community. Instead, we were given the arduous and artificial task of editing preexisting guidelines from previous cycles and a timeline that was accelerated and compressed to meet the administration’s needs.”

Fabian Bedne, a former Metro councilmember, is the mayor’s community development manager and has overseen all three participatory budgeting cycles.

“Democracy is sometimes messy, and part of public service is working constructively with others, establishing clear and transparent processes that [maximize] the number of people who can participate, and being diligent about complying with legal and regulatory requirements — especially when we’re spending millions of taxpayer money,” Bedne tells the Scene in a statement. “Those are fundamental principles in participatory budgeting, and we won’t compromise on those. Governing by fiat or dictatorship is certainly more efficient.”

Pastorek tells the Scene that the steering committee had no sway over the city’s decision to earmark 7 percent of the $10 million allocation for overhead, nor were they consulted when the city awarded public relations firm Hall Strategies a contract worth more than $600,000 to promote the project. She took issue with the firm, which represented developers during displacements at the RiverChase Apartment complex in the fall and represents Bristol Motor Speedway in its ongoing effort to land a NASCAR deal at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Pastorek also chafed at the committee’s tight timeline as well as meetings’ functionality, specifically Bedne’s decision to bring on a facilitator whose responsibilities overlapped with Pastorek’s role as chair.

When news broke that Pastorek resigned, District 12 Councilmember Erin Evans pointed out that Hall’s contract is the “funding equivalent of almost 10 traffic calming projects.” Hall maintains that the contract is mostly pass-through money to fund printed materials, translation services and website buildout. 

Metro Legal and Finance has kept the committee to a strict timeline because the funding originated from the American Rescue Plan, federal dollars that must be allocated by the end of 2024. As chair, Pastorek fielded concerns about whether the city had freed itself from such constraints by first categorizing that money as revenue replacement, then pulling $10 million from the city budget. As the deal for a new Titans stadium moved through the council, Pastorek interpreted the city’s approval of $2.1 billion for the stadium as a dismissal of the neighborhood-level needs that participatory budgeting aimed to address. The city will pledge current and future tax revenue behind its $760 million contribution to the new stadium. Neighborhood improvements are typically paid for from the general fund.

“What pushed me over the top was the entire stadium conversation,” Pastorek tells the Scene. “As the community, we get pathetic little crumbs that involve weeks, months, years of hoop-jumping to access and come with incredible constraints.”

Ben Eagles, a senior adviser for the mayor, defended the process as less arduous than the existing path to infrastructure improvements — approval through the Metro Council.

Eagles tells the Scene: “These projects could be funded through the traditional lengthy red-tape route of a capital improvements budget, then a capital spending plan, then a vote by Metro Council, but PB allows residents to have a direct say in what gets done in their neighborhood without relying on priority lists of department heads or the ear of a councilmember or the advocacy of a mayor.”

Pastorek formally resigned after the steering committee had approved guidelines to govern the remainder of the participatory budgeting process. Jason Sparks will replace Pastorek as chair of the steering committee. The window for project submissions closes on June 1.

“The timeline has been very challenging to work with,” Sparks tells the Scene. “But there’s a lot we can adjust within the framework we’ve been given. It’s kinda like when you’re buying a car. You can choose the radio or a CD player, but you don’t just decide not to get the car, right?”

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