District 34’s Councilman Antonio Reynoso Holds Key to Community Empowerment, Political Success: Listening Followed by Action
By Bernice Elizabeth Green
District 34 Councilman Antonio Reynoso isn’t smiling for the camera; he’s smiling because of the pride he has in the Williamsburg community where he was born and raised by immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic.
The Le Moyne College grad’s political success is centered on a core strategy: listening and letting the people in his district–comprising Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn and Ridgewood in Queens–have a say.
His actions on the Participatory Budget process, for example, is a case study of how the power in the people can be realized to their best advantage by letting them in on making decisions for the neighborhood where he sees them as “investors”.
In the Participatory Budgeting process, a Councilman’s constituents are given the opportunity to vote on how a portion of their tax dollars, the city’s public budget, can be spent, and what projects it can be spent on.
The idea was launched in 2011 by Council members Brad Lander, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Erich Ulrich and Jumaane Williams. It grew out of the highly successful grass-roots initiative born in Brazil in the 1980’s that’s now global.
This year, the PB fund was at $25 million for 24 participating Council Districts. Each was given $1 million dollars for projects in their districts.
This year, district residents vote on 18 projects. A tally of the final winning projects on the ballot is still being made.
Reynoso told a Queens Ledger reporter recently that he was not only listening to the community and hearing ideas for capital improvement projects that are not line items in the city’s budget. He also was looking out for “developing new community leaders through this process”.
The process of getting his district involved in voting on projects keyed to his area’s civil needs, from parks to schools to senior services and housing, was a simple one: through social media and human contact. He sends out e-mails to alert the community, and they in turn contribute to the outreach through word of mouth.
A series of “local assemblies” are organized at schools, churches and other local venues; neighborhood residents share their thoughts on projects to be funded.
Volunteer budget delegates from across the district spend the winter reviewing ideas proposed and shaping them into proposals. Also during the process, city agencies are consulted.
Not surprisingly, the project ideas are aligned with Antonio’s political commitment to achieving a better quality of life for the district he has called home all of his life. According to his Web site, Reynoso “understands that success in his district starts with strong schools, the fundamental access to affordable housing and economic growth”.
From April 11 – 19 of this year, district residents came out and voted on the projects they wanted to see in their community. They were allowed to vote for five projects from the 18 initiatives. Those projects comprise: major upgrades, renovations or project developments for four senior citizen projects; four public outdoor spaces, including playgrounds and a sidewalk; four science and tech development projects for students and development of a computer tech library and media center.
“At a young age, Antonio’s parents instilled in him the importance of hard work, education and community service. These lessons have undoubtedly influenced his core philosophy and remain with him today.”
A manifestation of those lessons are in the strategies for energizing his constituents. During the voting process, he hosted a special event with displays and poster boards by “campaign workers” that highlighted various ballot items. Booklets explaining the PB process were created and distributed.
Will Council District 34’s Williamsburg Housing Project Senior Citizens Center get a $600,000 upgrade–as proposed by neighborhood residents — to wheelchair-accessible bathroom facilities? The district’s votes are in, and the tally will show the results sometime this week.,
PB Results So Far:
The City Council Web site offers a clear definition of Participatory Budgeting: (It) is grass-roots democracy at its best. It helps make budget decisions clear and accessible. It gives real power to people who have never before been involved in the political process. And it results in better budget decisions because who better knows the needs of our community than the people who live there?
This year, the fourth for Brad Lander’s 39th City Council District in the PB process, 7 proposals won for FY2016 funding, among them: A/C for PS 124’s below-ground cafeteria ($200,000) — 1442 votes; innovative gym renovation at 146/MS 448 ($225,000) — 1200 votes; and a wireless sound system, new curtains and refurbished stage for PS 179’s auditorium ($230,000) — 1196 votes.
We should have results from Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane D. Williams’ 45th District as promised; Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito’s District 8 in Manhattan; Council member Eric Ulrich’s Queens District 32; and Reynoso’s 34th District in Brooklyn in an upcoming Our Time Press.
Final votes will determine how each district will spend $1 million or more dollars.