Calls to defund the police need to be heard by the local politicians who make city budget decisions. But the meetings where those decisions are made can be difficult to find out about, or full of confusing bureaucratic language; those who have never attended a city council meeting before may not know how to make their voice heard. Now, a new website aims to make it easier for the public to participate in these conversations by making the budget decision-making process more transparent.
Called Reinvestin.us, the site was created by a group of allies and web developers and spearheaded by Jane Kim, who previously served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and as president of the San Francisco Board of Education. It lists clear information on what meetings are coming up and when, what specifically is on that meeting’s agenda, who the local decision-makers are, and how exactly a resident can make a public comment.
“I’ve seen it from my personal experience that the meetings where relevant budget decisions are made are often under-attended, hard to locate, awkwardly timed, and we know that there are a lot of barriers to attendance,” Kim says. She remembers Black Lives Matter activists coming into board meetings to demand police reform but noticed that they often didn’t know what was on that day’s agenda.
“A lot of folks didn’t know how to find out when the board was determining things, they didn’t have a lot of understanding about how the budget process works, and they would show up when they decided was the best day to come, but wasn’t necessarily the day when the council or the supervisors were discussing items that they cared about,” she says. But she also remembers that when activists did show up, swing votes on the board tended to lean more progressive, no matter what they were voting on.
When protests started after George Floyd’s death, Kim thought that maybe not enough had changed around city budgets earlier, partly because of how complicated that process is. She wanted to build a tool that informs organizers and activists about these meetings, and she reached out to web developers and some people she met while working as California political director for Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign to do so. There’s no overarching goal of Reinvestin.us besides civic participation, she stressed; the creators are not leaders in the movement, but allies.
Despite Kim’s own political experience, even she had a hard time finding information for local budget meetings in other cities. The team worked with former legislative aides for various city councils to get those details. The Reinvestin.us page for each meeting also gives context about these budgets; one for a San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and SFPD budget meeting notes that the last fiscal year’s budget gave a total of $953.1 million to both departments—more than the $679 million to SFMTA and the $368 million allocated to homeless services. The page also includes a link to watch the meeting online and details for how to call in to comment.
July 1 was the budget deadline for many cities, but even though that date has passed, elected officials are still conducting meetings, making amendments, or even reopening their budgets as they face public scrutiny. “It actually makes it more critical for our site to exist, because these budget decisions won’t be calendared on a normal schedule,” Kim says, “so we want to make sure that we make it as easy as possible for folks to access these meetings and speak to their local elected officials.”
The site’s target audience is “that engaged citizen that’s attending their local city council meeting for the very first time,” Kim says, and it’s an apt time to start getting involved. Due to COVID-19, many government meetings are being held online for the first time, and residents can make public comments by calling in, rather than waiting in a long line at a physical meeting. “We’re using this moment that we’re in today to really accelerate and expand civic participation in your local city councils,” says Kim.
Reinvestin.us has focused on meetings in California, as that’s where the creators are based. They included Tucson, Arizona, after video emerged of the death of Carlos Ingram Lopez, who died with his hands cuffed behind him as Tucson police officers restrained his legs and torso and he said that he could not breathe. Kim says they’ve gotten emails from people around the country about adding their cities, and she hopes to expand the site to be an organizing tool for activists on the ground wherever they are. “We’ve also been tracking some data nationally about where we see the highest levels of violent encounters between police officers and citizens, and we are working to add those cities onto the site as well,” she says. “It’s a work in progress, but we wanted to release it as soon as possible, given the timeliness of all of these votes.”