Bloomington city council punts question of standing committees to end of January

On Wednesday night, Bloomington’s city council began its year with an organizational meeting that featured a split vote.

What generated some controversy at the start of the term was a proposal from newly named council president, Steve Volan, to use existing local code to establish several four-member standing committees. They would add to the existing land use committee.

Six of the nine councilmembers, led by outgoing council president Dave Rollo, wanted to postpone a vote on Volan’s proposal for three weeks, until Jan. 29. Susan Sandberg was vocal in her opposition to establishing standing committees, pointing out that she’d heard similar proposals three times before from Volan, during her time serving on the council.

Three councilmembers, including Volan, would have been content to postpone the question until next week, Jan. 15. But they thought the three-week wait was unnecessary. The 6–3 vote to postpone until Jan. 29 came after about 90 minutes of debate.

Near the start of the meeting, the naming of  Volan as president, Jim Sims vice president, and Isabel Piedmont-Smith parliamentarian was done by a unanimous voice vote.

Volan called the postponement a delaying tactic. He said those who oppose creating standing committees should simply vote against them next week, the time to which he thought the question should be postponed. Joining Volan in voting against postponement were Kate Rosenbarger and Matt Flaherty.

Volan’s standing committee proposal is a council resolution, not a change to local law, so the council could have approved it Wednesday night, without putting it through the first and second reading process that is required for ordinances. The successful postponement means it will be at least three weeks before a vote is taken.

That sets up the last Wednesday in January for what could be another split vote on the question of establishing standing committees.

The standing committees proposed by Volan on Wednesday are: Jack Hopkins social services; land use; administration; community affairs; housing; public safety; sustainability, climate action, and resilience; transportation; and utilities and sanitation.

New councilmembers Ron Smith and Sue Sgambelluri did not indicate a strong preference on the issue. Sgambelluri encouraged thinking about the ways the council would measure success for the proposal, if it were implemented.

Voting in favor of the three-week postponement, but expressing support for standing committees, was Isabel Piedmont-Smith.

Piedmont-Smith offered the perspective of a councilmember who is starting her third four-year term. She said the workload associated with having to research every issue can be overwhelming. Piedmont-Smith said she would like the opportunity to specialize a bit.

In terms of legislative process, here’s what Volan is proposing: After a new local ordinance gets its first reading, the council could choose to refer the legislation to a standing committee for further research and discussion, or to the committee of the whole, which is composed of all nine councilmembers.

That is, consideration of legislation by a standing committee would not be an extra step, in addition to consideration by the committee of the whole. Rather, a standing committee would be an alternative path from first reading to second reading.

Volan’s arguments for creating the kind of committees used by most other similar city councils in the state of Indiana include: spreading the workload by allowing councilmembers to develop some specialized expertise; relaxing the legislative process so it can extend, if needed, from a two-week cycle to a four-week cycle; more precise scheduling of committee hearings, compared to a committee-of-the-whole approach.

Sandberg said that when she hears that other city councils in the state use standing committees her reaction is, “Frankly, I don’t care.” She cautioned new councilmembers that there’s a learning curve to city council work. Sandberg said she is not in favor of changing the legislative process in the first week of the first year of a new term.

The ability of a standing committee to take a slower legislative approach than the committee of the whole stems from local code requirements for reporting out from committee. The committee of the whole owes its report to the full council right after it meets one time. The committee of the whole can’t itself decide to adjourn and to meet again on the same topic.

On the other hand, a standing committee owes a report “not later than the second regular session after being referred to the committee.”  Regular meetings fall on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. That means that a standing committee could meet twice before needing to report to the full council with a recommendation.

Rollo expressed skepticism about the use of subset of the full council to do more in depth study of an issue. Rollo sees the collective wisdom of nine councilmembers as a significant benefit provided by the committee of the whole.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Flaherty reiterated a point he’d made at last Friday’s council work session, when Volan presented his proposal: The council can refer a matter to a standing committee only by a majority vote. That serves as a kind of “failsafe,” Flaherty said. If the will of the council for some particular matter is not to refer it to a standing committee, but rather to the committee of the whole, that’s what will happen.

Improvements to the legislative process are not the only kind of argument made by Volan for standing committees. Such committees would, Volan said, better equip the council, as the legislative branch, to serve as a check on the executive, that is, the mayor. That’s because each standing committee would serve as a liaison to specific departments in the city.

For example, the administration committee would communicate with the clerk, controller, human resources, ITS, legal, and the facilities and fleet sections of the public works department.

The impact on the city staff was a point Sandberg raised as an unknown. She said that Volan’s proposal was “getting close to overreaching and overstepping” the council’s role as the legislative branch. Any needed reforms can be done while maintaining a good working relationship with the administration, Sandberg said.

Volan pointed out that no one from the administration was there on Wednesday to oppose the formation of standing committees. The absence of anyone from the administration to oppose the proposal showed a relative lack of concern about its impact, Volan said.

Jim Sims responded to an idea that Piedmont-Smith floated: Standing committees would require councilmembers to trust each other. Sims said he wanted to be able to “depend” on his colleagues, saying that “trust” is not the word he wanted to use.

The land use committee is the subset of councilmembers to which planned unit developments (PUDs) have been referred for the last couple years, after getting a first reading in front of the council. So it was cited as an example in both sides of the debate on standing committees.

Piedmont-Smith said she’d served on the land use committee for two years and that it had worked efficiently. She’s never heard negative feedback from colleagues, she said.

Rollo questioned the efficacy of land use committee over the last two years. He wanted to know from the planning staff’s point of view, how well the land use committee had functioned. Rollo called standing committees “a solution in search of a problem.”

The land use committee generated a bit of discussion early in the meeting when Volan appointed its members for this year: Volan, Piedmont-Smith, Flaherty and Rosenbarger.

Rollo suggested that one of the four might be swapped out in favor of Sandberg, given her service on the plan commission. Sandberg said she was not eager to serve on the land use committee, saying that service on the plan commission was already a “heavy lift.” Sandberg said she would be willing to serve on the land use committee if other councilmembers felt it was important for balance.

With respect to balance, during the deliberations on the unified development ordinance (UDO) late last year, Volan and Piedmont-Smith debated on the side of increased density.  As future councilmembers,  Flaherty and Rosenbarger advocated for increased density from the public podium during the council’s UDO hearings. Sandberg advocated against increased density in core neighborhoods, and was in the majority for the vote that prohibited duplexes and triplexes in the core.

Volan concluded the brief discussion on land use committee membership by suggesting that if two councilmembers wanted to swap out places they could do so using the same procedure that is used to change the seating assignments on the dais. They simply have to put it in writing.

Based on their remarks on Wednesday, the four land-use committee members will probably vote in favor of Volan’s standing committee proposal. That means one additional vote would give it a simple majority.

Rollo and Sandberg would at this point probably have to count as the hardest to persuade to vote in favor. So an extra vote in support would be more likely to come from Sims, Sgambelluri or Smith.

In 2020, The Beacon’s tally of Bloomington city council rollcall votes will be updated in real time from council chambers. 

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One thought on “Bloomington city council punts question of standing committees to end of January

  1. Since council is not a full time position as in larger cities, does it make sense that members should have to become “experts” in any area rather than depending on the expertise of the professionals working for the city?

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