At a forum held on Wednesday night for Bloomington city council candidates in District 3, an audience of around a dozen Bell Trace residents heard from the three candidates who are on this year’s ballot: Nick Kappas (independent), Ron Smith (Democrat), and Marty Spechler (independent).
Bell Trace is a senior living community on the city’s east side. Residents had questions about two specific topics: transportation and a planned convention center expansion downtown.
The timing for those topics squares up with a couple of public meetings planned before the end of the month, on Oct. 29. One is the kickoff to a series of meetings hosted by Bloomington Transit about a proposed new route configuration, which has been studied for more than a year.
Another meeting set for Oct. 29 is a joint meeting of the city council and the county council about the plans for the expanded convention center.
All three candidates expressed support for the convention center expansion. Mayor John Hamilton, who was having dinner at Bell Trace with his mother-in-law, dropped by the forum to express his support for fellow Democratic Party primary winner Ron Smith. Hamilton was also asked about the convention center. He said he was “a little worried” about it, but was confident that it would move forward.
On the topic of transportation, Bell Trace residents expressed support for BT Access, the paratransit service offered by Bloomington Transit. Smith said he felt the application he’d helped some people fill out for BT Access is too long. He thought it was 30 pages, but Bell Trace residents told him it was 15 pages—agreeing that it was long, with three pages for a doctor to fill out. Smith mentioned a possible option that Bloomington Transit is exploring, called “microtransit,” which might offer Bell Trace residents some additional service.
The background on that is part of the 2020 budget. Bloomington is hoping to win a
$650 million operations grant to fund a one-year pilot microtransit program. Unlike fixed-route service, which is provided on regular routes with 40-foot long buses, microtransit provides service much like Uber and Lyft do—with the key difference that other riders can be picked up along the way.
Bell Trace residents were also keen to see bus service provided all the way to their complex—the fixed route service along 10th Street doesn’t pull into the Bell Trace campus. They’d also like better service during the summer. Bloomington Transit reduces service on some routes during the summer when ridership is significantly lower due to the university’s break. Kappas said that federal transportation funding is tied to ridership. Because there are a lot of students who ride the bus, that translates into more funding, but the service needs to expand to serve the community better, too, he said. “We need to figure out how we incorporate students but actually serve our community, because were not,” Kappas said.
On transportation, Spechler said, “Any Democrat like me who’s running anywhere in the city is for improving our position on climate change, on transportation and on affordable housing.” He said his specific ideas on those topics are available in the League of Women Voters “Keys to the Candidates” information. Spechler’s statements made for the LWV elections resource about transportation include: “More frequent bus service on the main artery lines (Walnut and Third Street) would encourage apartment building on those streets without adding to vehicle congestion.”
Moderator Kurt Messick, the chaplain at Bell Trace, concluded after the roughly forty-five minute event at Bell Trace: “I think one thing that is clear to me is that we have no bad candidates for this. So we will come out a winner, regardless of who gets it.”
More Public Transportation
Public transportation came up a couple of times as topic of conversation at the Bell Trace forum. Nick Kappas was asked about his hopes for transportation improvement. He said he wanted to help create “an actual mass transit system.” He cautioned that there is “no one silver bullet here.” But he suggested that we we need to help “rebrand what Bloomington Transit is, provide multiple different type of options.” Kappas told Bell Trace residents, “We need a louder voice to ensure that access out here not just by buses but by multiple different forms of transportation.”
Public transit came up when Ron Smith responded to a question about what he would try to tackle first as a councilmember: “The other thing that I might do, that’s been bugging me lately, is maybe I want to propose banning scooters from downtown.”
That got a negative response from one Bell Trace resident. So Smith followed up, “You say no? Tell me what your thoughts are on that.” The resident’s answer to Smith’s question wound up with a reference to public transportation:
Number one, I wish I were younger and brave enough get on one myself. But I think they are currently very useful to the students and it’s a good way for them to get home safely at night if they’re on the campus. Maybe somebody could give them some driving instructions! But other than that, I think they’re here to stay and I think they should be. Until we can get some more public transportation of some sort that would help all of us.
Some back-and-forth between Smith and other forum attendees drew out the fact that the BT Access (paratransit) application is fairly long. [The link to the application provided on the Bloomington Transit website looks like the standard-print size is 11-pages. A large-print version, which currently gives a 404 error, is almost certainly longer.]
The League of Women Voters 411 guide includes a question about public transportation in its voter’s guide:
What are the challenges and opportunities you see for our community’s public transit system? What would you do on council to address those challenges/opportunities?
The LWV guide does not provide a way to link directly to responses, candidates or races. Here’s what the District 3 candidates had to say in response to the public transportation question.
Challenges include accessibility and a negative perception associated with routes that prioritize students over permanent residents. It will be incredibly difficult to build out a sustainable mass transit system when our bus system is focused on one-quarter of the square mileage of Bloomington. Furthermore, current funding for public transit is achieved based on increased ridership of IU students, not permanent residents. Opportunities include providing new express options along Walnut/College and 3rd street to increase access for permanent residential areas. On City Council, I will favor additional funding for Bloomington Transit and encourage efforts to make the system more inclusive for non-student residents.
The challenge for the public transit system is to optimize the routes so more people will find it useful and ridership will increase. In response, the transportation transit system is in the process of adjusting routes, making routes more frequent. On council, I would support this continued fine tuning of the routes. I would work with other Council Members to ask the transit corporation to ensure routes serve public service agencies for poor people and to look at the cost for the working poor.
New bus lines from the west side to the new hospital are essential. Extending bus service to the west and south would allow people to combine rural living with urban employment. More frequent bus service on the main artery lines (Walnut and Third Street) would encourage apartment building on those streets without adding to vehicle congestion. Gradual introduction of electric buses will reduce smoke and noise. I would reduce or disallow scooter use on sidewalks throughout the center of the city. IU must cooperate in limiting scooter use on campus. Scooters are dangerous and unnecessary here.
Nick Kappas mentioned his seven-month-old daughter a few times, citing her as a reason he’s running: “I am running also for my seven-month-old daughter. My daughter was born in February and my family and I plan to live and raise her here … my wife and I would like to retire in Bloomington.”
Kappas talked about the impact he’s already had in the four years he’s lived in Bloomington—as a plan commissioner, helping to put together the city’s comprehensive plan, the transportation plan and the draft of the unified development ordinance (UDO) that’s currently in front of the city council. (The council had its first hearing on the UDO the same night as the candidate forum.)
Kappas made a campaign promise: “If I were to be elected I would hold sessions here at Bell Trace for anyone willing to come and tell me how they feel I’m doing as a representative, but also how the city is doing and what we can do from a legislative standpoint moving forward.”
Ron Smith pointed to his 30 years of experience in state government with the Division of Aging and the Office of Medicaid Policy and Planning and his current position as care manager for the Area 10 Agency on Aging. He said he would be a councilmember who would ask, “How does this affect our citizens who are senior citizens and maybe people who have walkers, and want to go to town and have dinner or go to the mall?”
Smith said when the council considers something like the UDO, or there is a new building, or some construction is happening in town he would be asking how that affects people who are older who may have mobility issues.
Smith said one of the first things he’d like to do is to “bother the mayor into putting a line item in the budget to extend the Endwright Center East, the senior center here by the mall.”
Marty Spechler stressed his ability to listen to what a range of people have to say, because a councilmember has to talk to a lot of people to get anything done at the city. One councilmember can’t make policy by themselves—there are nine people who serve on the city council, he said.
Spechler cited his previous service on the city council from 2012 through 2015. He considers the job of councilmember not a full-time job, or a part-time job, but an “anytime job” because anytime a resident has an issue that needs to be addressed, he would be able to do that.
Spechler said he was a moderate Democrat, running as an independent. “What I’m going to say is as a moderate Democrat I think we have to pay attention to our budget. Some of my colleagues on the council have been a little bit too free with your money,” Spechler said.
The Party Question
Mayor John Hamilton, a Democrat, stopped by the Bell Trace forum to lend his support to Ron Smith, who won the Democratic Party’s primary in May. The lack of any contested citywide races, like the one for mayor, led to a controversial decision by the county’s election board to cancel elections, except for districts like District 2 and District 3, where there are contested city council races.
Hamilton said if there was a mayoral election, he’d be at the forum campaigning. Hamilton said, “I would be standing here asking for your support and I would also ask for your support for the other Democrats running. And Ron Smith, in the end here, is the Democrat running, the same party as I am, the other two, friends of mine, are independents.”
Hamilton’s remarks could be analyzed as an allusion to the kerfuffle that arose internal to the Democratic Party towards the end of August—about whether to censure Spechler for standing for election as an independent.
Spechler was formerly elected to the city council as a Democrat and currently serves as an elected Democrat on the Bloomington Township board. Hamilton told Spechler at a meeting of precinct chairs in August that Spechler should resign from the township board, if he was going to run for the city council as an independent. (If Spechler wins, he’ll have to resign from the board.)
The executive committee of the Monroe Democratic Party opted not to censure Spechler, so long as he does not identify himself as the Democratic Party’s nominee during the campaign.
On Wednesday night, Spechler said he was running as an independent, and described himself several times as a “moderate Democrat.”