“I just got too involved in my work and family to know what was going on,” said Maria, a retired LA County employee and 33-year local resident. While most of us could plead the same reasons for our own civic disengagement, if you live in Bell, California, as Maria does, the stakes ended up becoming much higher. As I wrote in these pages back in 2010, the Bell story is one of civic malpractice almost as much as it is one of official malfeasance.

But this is changing. And a city, which has served as the national poster child for community negligence, is pointing the way towards a more participatory relationship between city hall and its residents.

On a rain-soaked Saturday, I participated as a table facilitator at the “Goal-Setting Community Forum” in Bell’s Community Center. Developed by the city’s current and recent interim city managers – the highly respected pair of Arne Croce and Ken Hampian – the event drew a modest, though interested crowd of several dozen Bell residents into a discussion around the city’s 2012-13 budget.

The format was straightforward, beginning with a brief overview of the city’s finances by consultant, Bill Statler, who outlined the major expenditure and revenue categories – sort of a “local government 101” talk. The focus then shifted to the tables of 6-8 residents each, broken in to “English-speaking,” and “Spanish-speaking” groups. All public comments made throughout the morning were simultaneously translated. At my table, we had residents who had lived in the town for decades next to those who had only moved to the city in the last couple years.

A thoughtful deliberation over what issues Bell’s City Council should consider in its upcoming budget followed, with subjects ranging from public safety to business permitting to taxes discussed.  Attendees then voted on our table’s top five issues, which were reported out to the entire group. All participants were given five red labels so they could apply them next to their most important issues after all the groups had offered their recommendations. By the end of the morning, it was becoming clear by the “red dot votes” that items related to economic development, the police, and administrative reorganization were the most popular.

Croce and Hampian will now write up a report on the residents’ suggestions and present it to Council for their review next week. This filtering of priorities from residents through the Council will lead towards a proposed budget in the coming months with progress reported on the city’s website and directly via email to those who have participated in this process.

Maria later told me, “this is history for us,” and she’s right. This is the most transparent, public budgeting process Bell has ever had. But in conducting it, the city is doing more, putting itself in a small but growing number of municipalities across the country – from Santa Monica to Edina, Minnesota to Philadelphia – that are actually including the public in the budget process itself. As Ken Hampian noted at the conclusion of the event, “We all know Bell has been at the wrong end of the transparency spectrum for the last several years, but with today’s workshop and the plans for future public engagement, the city has vaulted into the top echelon of cities’ public processes.”

Bell as a model of civic engagement?

Don’t bet against it. As another participant, Marco, told me towards the end of the morning, “I think we did some good work here today.” Work indeed, and though Saturday was a small step, it was one of the first in a direction, which has taken hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of strenuous effort on the part of officials and residents to change.

While “The Protester” has been celebrated recently, to me, what happened on Saturday in Bell is “what democracy looks like.”