Pitch for Bloomington city council standing committees seen by executive branch as a fastball

“Is council a co-equal branch of government or isn’t it?” That’s a rhetorical question posed by Steve Volan, this year’s president of Bloomington’s city council, about the relationship between the council and the city’s administration.

Volan asked the question during a contentious work session held last Friday afternoon in city hall’s Hooker Conference Room. All nine councilmembers attended at least part of the session, along with a dozen and half staff members, among them several department heads and deputy mayor Mick Renneisen.

The friction that emerged between Volan and staff members, and with some of Volan’s city council colleagues, stemmed from a pending resolution, introduced by Volan at the city council’s first meeting of the year, on Jan. 8.

Volan proposes to use existing city code to establish seven four-member standing committees. Already established is a land use committee, to which zoning legislation has been referred for the last two years.

It’s apparent that the question of establishing standing committees is a controversial issue for the city council. It was on a split vote, that the council decided last week to postpone the question of standing committees to its Jan. 29 meeting. Those voting against postponement, including Volan, wanted to see the question considered earlier, on Jan. 15.

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.

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

Several staff members at Friday’s work session conveyed in candid terms their opposition to creating additional standing committees. Planning and transportation department director Terri Porter led off the criticism with a prepared statement. Porter disputed Volan’s claim of time saving success by the land use committee over the last two years.

Porter said, “It reinforces our reputation as being a place that’s difficult to do business. And this is as big deal, because we’re trying to address our housing crisis, we’re trying to increase employment opportunities, and this steps right in the way of all that.”

Based on their work session interaction, Porter and Volan might be doing more research on time spent in committee hearings before and after the land use committee was established.

At the work session, staff also wound up airing grievances about some existing city council habits that don’t appear to be dependent on the standing committee question.

One outcome of the work session could be that the city’s 33 boards and commissions are scrutinized, to consider if some of them can be consolidated or sunset. That would reduce the work that city staff have to do to provide administrative support for them.

At the work session, city staff pushed back against both of Volan’s arguments: the idea that it would save time in the legislative process; and the idea that it would merely allow the city council to check the executive.

Power grab or check on executive?

Bloomington’s police chief, Mike Diekhoff, told Volan he saw the proposal as a “power grab.” Diekhoff served on the city council for nine years from 1999 to 2007, and overlapped some years with current councilmembers Volan, Sandberg and Dave Rollo.

Diekhoff told Volan:

I spent nine years as the District 3 representative to the city council. And reading what you presented, I personally, as a former councilmember, see it kind of as a power grab. And you want to micromanage the departments of the city, which I never believed, when I was on the city council, was the role of the city council. We were the legislative branch and we dealt with the budgets.

Earlier in the session Volan had responded to a question from the deputy mayor, Mick Renneisen, about what he meant by “oversight” in his written description of his proposal.

Is council a coequal branch of government or isn’t it? If it is, we need to understand what’s happening. Oversight can be interpreted as trying to run things, or oversight can be seen as trying to check things. All I’m trying to do is the latter. .. it’s part of our duty as councilmembers to answer to the public if something goes wrong.

When Volan responded to a question about his leadership style from the city’s director of public engagement, Mary Catherine Carmichael, he said:

[T]he paranoia here is really astonishing. And it starts with some of my colleagues, some of whom oppose this idea utterly without really understanding it. [Standing committees are] not the imposition that some people think.

Renneisen responded to Volan by saying, “With all due respect, when you use words “impeach,” “investigate” and “dismiss,” …those are inflammatory words that would get anyone’s attention who might be subject to those words.” The words that Renneisen cited were a part of Volan’s written description of the proposal, which gave city code references for powers of the city council to remove city employees.

When Volan pointed out they were the same words in city code, Renneisen came back to a point he’d raised earlier in the session. Namely, the city’s corporation counsel had done some research to establish that there had been state statues enacted after those sections of the city code, thus superseding them.

That meant the city council did not have the power to remove city staff members that Volan had portrayed. Volan said that if the city ordinance on that topic was wrong, then it needed to be corrected.

Two of the city’s boards were highlighted by staff, out of concern that they might be somehow supplanted by a corresponding city council committee.

Parks and recreation department administrator Paula McDevitt noted that the the board of park commissioners is enabled by state statute. She didn’t want to see the system that is in place for parks disrupted. Police chief Mike Diekhoff voiced a similar concern about the board of public safety.

Volan responded by saying that standing committees of the council were not meant to supplant existing boards and commissions.

One kind of concern expressed a few different times during the work session was that staff would be expected to provide support for council committees in the way they already do for the city’s 33 different boards and commissions. Renneisen told Volan: “[Staffing 33 boards and commissions] takes a huge amount of staff time, and so far nobody is convinced that this isn’t just adding to this.”

Volan’s response to the staffing concern was: “The council committees don’t require staffing. A committee is not a board, it’s not a commission. It’s a subset of the council, it’s nothing more.”

Deference by city council to recommendations of other entities?

With respect to boards and commissions, there’s already a kind of suboptimal aspect of the council’s process, according to assistant director of the planning and transportation department, Scott Robinson.

At Friday’s work session, Robinson said city council’s reliance on the recommendations from its boards and commissions has broken down. The city council, whether it’s the committee of the whole or the land use committee, seems to be reluctant to rely on the process that a board or commission has already been through, Robinson said.

There seems to be a growing tendency by the council to start from scratch, Robinson said. As examples, he gave the comprehensive plan, the transportation plan and the unified development ordinance, which were heavily amended by the city council. All those documents were forwarded to the council by the plan commission.

Members of boards and commissions don’t feel valued, Robinson said, and that’s something that should be addressed. Volan was not hearing Robinson’s sentiments for the first time. Robinson has voiced similar concerns at meetings of the parking commission, on which Volan serves.

Planning and transportation director Terri Porter also raised the issue of starting from scratch:

There are a limited number of items that the land use committee should be concerned about. Instead, they go back to the very beginning, and we start the whole process all over again, and staff is expected to be there right along with it. And I brought this to your attention, councilmember Volan, and I’ve just been told that the plan commission isn’t council and that council has a right to make their own decisions. Well, I question: Why have a council rep on the plan commission?

The plan commission is required to include a member of the city council under state statute.

Volan responded to Renneisen’s concern about the work load caused by so many city boards and commissions by saying he was interested in reviewing them all. He cautioned that he was aware of proposals from other councilmembers to create two additional commissions: a housing commission and a labor commission. So he is more sympathetic to Renneisen’s concern than other councilmembers, Volan said.

A way of framing one concern expressed by staff at Friday’s work session, as it relates to creating additional standing committees, is this: If the nine-member city council is already reluctant to defer to the recommendations made by boards and commissions, why would it defer to the recommendation of a subset of its members?

Councilmember Susan Sandberg wouldn’t defer to a subset of the council. As Sandberg put it:

I want to see it with my own eyes and hear it with my own ears and assess it in my own way. … It’s just that I have a responsibility of understanding every piece of legislation that comes before me. And so I don’t automatically rubber stamp and accept the recommendation of those four, doesn’t mean I don’t trust them as colleagues. It just means I have a broader obligation to my public to understand it for myself.

So Sandberg does not see an advantage to having a review of legislation by a four-member committee, instead of the council’s nine-member committee of the whole.

Time efficiencies?

Volan’s argument based on efficient use of time is based in part on the idea that standing committees have the flexibility to hold an additional meeting on a topic before it has to report to the full council. In contrast, the committee of the whole has to reach a recommendation the same night. That can lead to long committee-of-the-whole meetings.

So the idea is that the clock time for any given meeting will be shorter under a standing committee system.

A sharp back-and-forth between Volan and planning and transportation department director Terri Porter indicates there’ll be some research into the two-year history of the land use committee’s impact on the time of meetings:

Volan: “Thank you for listing your concerns. There’s a lot there….I want to comment on many things that Ms. Porter said. I think that her statement reflects a profound, profound misunderstanding of how council works and how it should work. I also would ask her if she went back before 2018 to ask how much much time staff spent when PUDs and rezones were presented to the committee of the whole. She’s not compiled that.”

Porter: “I can.”

Volan: “I’d like you to.”

Porter: “I will.”

Volan: “Looking forward to it.”

Later in the work session, as part of an exchange between Volan and Robinson, Volan indicted an interest in looking at the cumulative meeting times for the two years before the land use committee was established and for the two since it’s been used after it was used consistently.

Under city code, standing committee meetings have to be scheduled on non-regular-meeting Wednesdays, one after the other, so that anyone can attend any standing committee meeting. Volan sees a benefit in, for example, three standing committee meetings, scheduled one after the other at specific times, compared to a committee-of-the-whole meeting that covers three separate agenda points.

What’s the benefit? The standing committee meeting schedule would let the public and staff better predict when topics are going to be considered, which means their own time could be planned better.

At Friday’s work session, staff indicated an interest in first addressing inefficiencies in the ordering of the agenda, before thinking about establishing several more standing committees. Director of the city’s economic development and sustainability department, Alex Crowley, said he recalled a bunch of high school students who had to wait through two hours worth of items just to tell the council about a project they were working on.

The president of the council sets meeting agendas. Why weren’t agendas generally set so that people who had short items had them scheduled toward the start of meetings?Volan’s responded to the question by saying he’d never been president before. “You can ask previous presidents—one of them is here,” Volan said.

Rollo, who served as president of the council last year, responded by saying he had worked with department heads and staff to try to arrive at a reasonable way to sequence agenda items.

Rollo also weighed in for using the nine-member committee of the whole by pointing to a tradeoff. Whatever predictably is gained for the timing of agenda items is traded off against the predictability of outcome when the matter comes in front of the full council, Rollo said.

Presenting a piece of legislation to the committee of the whole, Rollo said, gives a petitioner a chance to “test the temperature” of the whole council before the final vote by the council. If it’s a four-member committee that hears the proposal, a petitioner gets only one chance to address the whole body of the council, Rollo said. The view of the four could be different from the council as a whole.

Reaction to Volan, next steps

This year’s proposal from Volan is not the first time it’s been pitched. Volan brought forward such a proposal in 2011, but it was withdrawn. This year  is the first time Volan has brought forward the proposal as president of the council. In his previous 16 years of council service, he’s served several times as parliamentarian, once as vice president, but never as president.

At the work session, Volan was keen to defend the proposal against the criticism he was hearing.

Terri Porter led off the staff response to Volan’s presentation with a sharp criticism of the impact the land use committee had had in the last two years on the development process.

Volan started into a point-by-point rebuttal of Porter’s statement. Vice president of the council, Jim Sims, suggested to Volan that given the time constraints of the work session, it might be better to hear from other staff, in addition to Porter.

Volan told Sims, “I’m sorry, [the standing committee proposal] being grossly misrepresented by people who would rather not have it at all, who do not want to see change.” So Volan persisted in his rebuttal briefly, before deputy mayor Mick Renneisen told Volan, “If we don’t get a chance to ask questions, I don’t see any reason to have our department heads sit here.” Volan wrapped up about a minute and a half later.

Communications director Director of public engagement for the city, Mary Catherine Carmichael, posed a pointed question that invited Volan to self-assess his performance at the work session: “So, we’re just starting your term as president, and I’m curious as a staff member, would you consider today’s meeting a good example of your leadership style and how you plan to interact with staff going forward?”

Volan led off his response by saying, “I’d like to think that I’m being responsive and fair.”

Towards the end of the work session, Volan started looking ahead to the council’s consideration of the matter on Jan. 29: “As concerned as people are about somehow this is an additional imposition, it is not. It is not. I will endeavor to prove it to you over the next two weeks.”

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5 thoughts on “Pitch for Bloomington city council standing committees seen by executive branch as a fastball

  1. Great photos – shows it as a bit inconvenient for the public to attend without interruption of the meeting, are they usually held in the regular Council Chamber? If not, they should be. Are the work sessions televised?

    1. In the six months I’ve been covering city council, I have never seen anywhere close to that many staff and councilmembers at a work session as last Friday. It’s probably an all-time record.

      Re: “Are the work sessions televised?” Work sessions are not recorded by CATS. I am not sure if they could be under the current arrangement between the city and CATS. I’ll try and check into that.

      Re: “[A]re they usually held in the regular Council Chamber?” No. Work sessions are normally held in what’s called the “library” inside the clerk/council office suite on the ground floor of city hall. It’s a smallish room—smaller than the Hooker Conference Room (where this work session was held), and smaller than many of the other conference rooms elsewhere in city hall. The library can accommodate maybe a maximum of eight people at the table and maybe a half dozen more around the edges. Work session attendance is usually pretty sparse, three maybe four councilmembers. Add to that a couple of council staff, city clerk and the subject matter experts, and it’s still under 10 people.

      Since July 1, 2019 I have never seen another member of the public or the press at a city council work session. They’re noticed in accordance with Open Door Law, but Friday at noon (the usual time) is probably not going to draw a lot of people.

      Re: Should work sessions be in council chambers? I think the conceptual barrier to this is that for work sessions, the couple or three councilmembers and a staff person prefer to sit _around_ a table and look at the same paper docs. The council dais isn’t great for that atmosphere. But the conceptual barrier could be overcome in council chambers with this one weird trick: Folding tables! The county commissioners and county council use this approach in the Nat U Hill room at the court house, with decent success. It’s the usual meeting place, so members of the public can just go to the usual meeting place for that body.

      It’s easy to anticipate the objection, “But nobody is going to show up, no matter where we hold it.” Maybe. But probably the best way to test that theory is to convene work sessions in city council chambers with folding tables instead of the dais.

  2. Wow! Unbelievable. Thanks for the coverage which has never been provided previously. As one who sat thru many of these meetings for many years, this is amazing.

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