During his thirty years in Brooklyn, Ben Solotaire has worn many hats, from working in the theater world (he still finds time to participate in productions at the Public Theater in Manhattan), to serving on boards and in local Brooklyn organizations. Now, he’s looking to add “City Council Member” to that list.
Greenpointers spoke with Solotaire, currently working as the director of participatory budgeting in Council Member Stephen Levin’s office, about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, meeting constituents where they’re at, and what exactly is participatory budgeting.
For our readers who might not know you, can you give us a quick introduction? What motivated you to run in the first place?
I have lived in Brooklyn for most of the last 30 years. I’m a native New Yorker, but then grew up in Maine and then came back after college. I’ve lived in and around the Gowanus Canal most of the last 30 years. I love New York City. It is my home, it’s where my heart is.
I started off in the arts as a freelance technician, designer, and producer for theater. I raised two kids and was basically a good liberal New Yorker, reading the New York Times and voting. About 10 years ago, I decided to switch careers and ended up interning with Council Member [Gale] Brewer which was life transforming. She’s a great public servant, and she opened my eyes to what local government does, and what it can do, and how passionate people are about their communities and making them better. I also got introduced to participatory budgeting at that time. It was just getting introduced to the city. I started getting involved in that – talk about grassroots community engagement.
From that point on, I wanted to work for the city council. It wasn’t immediate, but I eventually ended up working for Council Member Levin as the community liaison for participatory budgeting, specifically to Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It was that experience with Gale and then the four or five years I’ve been with the Council Member that made me realize how impactful being a council member can be and how direct a connection we can have to our constituents, and how working together is really key to finding solutions to the issues that people face. We have to do it together. My job as a council member is to listen and meet with the residents of our district to help them make their neighborhoods better for everybody.
What would you say are the top three issues or projects specific to this district that you plan to tackle?
The next class of council members, and there will be thirty-five or so new ones, are going to take office with budget crunches, with public health issues still outstanding, and we’re gonna have to make sure that when we pass our first budget we are doing it very carefully with a lot of thought about what we need to protect for our constituents, which is certainly education and health and small businesses. We need to make it easier for businesses to grow and to survive. We need to make our kids safe in schools. So one issue would be the budget. I don’t think we should have an austerity budget. We need to cut where we need to and protect services for our constituents.
I think that we are all concerned about climate change and a toxic environment. Most of Brooklyn is a Brownfield. We have the world’s largest underground oil spill. We have two Superfund sites, the Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal. We need to aggressively move towards cleaning up our environment, and that’s holding people responsible to do the cleaning. The city shouldn’t be spending its money doing that – we should be making sure that other parties do that. Throughout the district, as people do remediation, we need to make sure that it’s being done correctly and safely, protecting our residents.
We’re gonna inherit the BQE [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway] issue down in Brooklyn Heights. I say that because that’s the section that everyone is talking about, but visiting the BQE is a corridor question. We have to fix that section, but that involves changing the way we deal with freight, changing the way we deal with transportation. Up through Williamsburg, there’s a trench that’s been talked about under the BQE in northern Greenpoint. It’s dead man’s land between the 33rd and 34th council districts. That’s a scar on the whole district. Getting on the BQE in a car is always going to be a bad experience, so we really need to holistically look at the BQE.
What lessons have you learned from community organizing and working in a city council member’s office that will serve you in this role?
I’ve learned that outreach is hard, and you can’t do it just off the cuff. You need to go to where the people are. [If] we’re holding a community based forum, and we put out a flyer a week or two before and say we’re going to have a discussion about something and then have the meeting and walk away, that’s not what we need to do. There’s language considerations, there’s access considerations. We work 9 to 5 in the council. We have a day job and at night time we do a lot of meetings. But night meetings aren’t great for a lot of people. So we have to figure out when the meetings should be held.
We can’t buy food or pay for travel expenses at these meetings, I don’t know how to change that, but we need to look at that. If you’re having a meeting at 6 or 7 PM, it takes a while to get there, so it takes a lot of work and you have to go to the PTA meetings and CEC meetings and community board meetings. We have amazing organizations in District 33… and you have to meet with them and talk with them as well as individuals. It’s hard and you need to commit to it. Having someone in the office who speaks Polish or Yiddish would be something I don’t think we’ve had in the council member’s office. Real organizers are what we need.
What is participatory budgeting, and what does that look like to you?
Participatory budgeting is an opportunity for community residents to decide on how their tax dollars get spent. It started in 1989 in Brazil, spread around the world, and it’s in many places in the United States. It’s three phases, done differently in every location. We go out into the community and ask what they think needs to be better, what is lacking. In New York, we’re talking about mostly capital projects, construction type things, but also smaller expense projects such as educational classes or knitting classes or supplies for a daycare. We spend a couple months soliciting from the community about what they need. Then community volunteers spend time evaluating those projects based on equity and need.
After a couple months of that, they come up with a group of projects to go on a ballot to be voted on by the community. In New York City, it’s by district, and it’s a voluntary process. Everybody who lives in a district gets a vote. When I say everybody, I mean everybody that’s over the age of 11 and lives in the district. You don’t have to be a registered voter or citizen. We provide it in four languages, on paper and digitally. Everyone who lives in the district and wants to vote can vote. In Council Member Levin’s case, in previous years, he had $1.5 million for capital, and last year we had $25,000 on the expense side, and whatever projects get the most votes is how that money is spent, with no input from the council member or myself.
What is your favorite thing about living in this district?
It’s varied in its cultures. We go from the Polish communities to the Hasidic communities, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, we have public housing, a lot of new people and a lot of old timers. It’s not demographically incredibly diverse, but there’s a lot of different communities, and they are all very dedicated like Brooklynites tend to be to their communities. I also really love the waterfront. I grew up near the ocean. I love the ocean. We are a waterfront district… and I really believe that the waterfront is a key to the revitalization of Brooklyn and climate change, so I love the fact that we have a lot of water.
Any other last thoughts about what our readers should know about you?
I’m certainly one of the older candidates. I’ve raised kids, worked as a freelancer, I’ve been in the private sector, I’ve been in the arts, and I’ve chosen public service at this point in my life to commit my life to. I’m not here as a rung on the ladder, I don’t know what I will do after eight years, if I’m fortunate enough to get them. I didn’t fall into this business, I’m not born into it, it’s not in my blood, but I think my life experiences will add a lot to being a council member, and it’s really about the positive things that the government does, and we can only do with working together to find answers. It’s not easy. Finding consensus is hard and takes a lot of hard work but it’s always worth it because you end up with something that really works.