At its regular meeting last Wednesday, Bloomington’s city council voted to refer a new non-consensual towing ordinance to the council’s committee of the whole for a second time.
Wednesday’s referral to the committee of the whole means the new law regulating towing companies that remove vehicles parked illegally on private property will get further consideration on Feb. 12. But it won’t get a vote to enact it on that day.
The procedural vote, to refer the legislation to the committee of the whole, was split 7–2. That’s because councilmembers are not yet in alignment about how they want to use smaller, four-member committees, compared to the committee of the whole, in their legislative process.
It’s been a point of friction since the start of the year.
Some key features of the new law include a $350 annual license and a cap on fees charged to vehicle owners of $125 for the towing, $25 for any special equipment needed (like a dolly), and $25 per day for storage. As currently drafted, the law also requires an option for someone to get their vehicle released by paying 20 percent of fees with a signed payment agreement for the balance.
Among the aspects of the new law that look like they might still be amended are the way businesses apply for licenses, the dollar amounts for fee caps, and fines for non-compliance. The city council office did not include draft amendments in the legislative packet that’s made available to the public, but instead described the sections of the law that might be affected by amendments.
Deliberations by councilmembers on Wednesday indicated a possible amendment of the towing fee cap from $125 to $135 to match the fees of other surrounding agencies, like Indiana University and Monroe County. There’s also the possibility of adding an additional administrative fee, but councilmembers want to know what specific expenses it’s meant to cover.
At the council’s Wednesday meeting, deputy city council attorney/administrator Stephen Lucas said that he’d reviewed the proposed ordinance and its conformance with state statute. The city’s ordinance goes further than the state statute, but that’s allowed under home rule, Lucas said. He was responding to the contention during public commentary made at the Jan. 22 committee-of-the-whole meeting that the city’s ordinance didn’t align with state law.
Also on Wednesday, Bloomington Police Department operations captain Scott Oldham clarified that “no-pay” releases of towed cars have now been discontinued. Oldham said for years, BPD had a policy, guided by advice from the Monroe County prosecutor’s office, that if someone provided the name and address where they could be served a summons, the department would order a towed vehicle to be returned to the owner at no charge. With the implementation of a new state law last year, that’s no longer the city’s policy, Oldham said.
Among the other issues that the council might be sifting through on Feb. 12 are: clear definitions of an abandoned vehicle; special occasion pricing; a single hotline for all towed vehicles; whether the 20-percent downpayment is high enough.
On Wednesday, the sponsor of the ordinance, Jim Sims, ticked through the various organizations that had been invited to weigh in at the council’s meeting: every towing company in Monroe County; the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce; Downtown Bloomington, Inc.; Monroe County Apartment Association; Indiana Legal Services; District 10 Pro Bono Project; and the South Central Community Action Program.
Consideration of the towing ordinance is also serving as a kind of field for the council to joust on the question of whether to establish standing committees, as proposed by council president Steve Volan.
Standing committees were a part of Volan’s vision for the principles and values he would use to lead the council if he were chosen as president, a vision which he pitched to city council colleagues at a closed “caucus” gathering held on Jan. 2.
Volan is proposing to create seven new four-member standing committees to add to the land use committee that’s existed for the last couple of years to handle planned unit developments.
The standing committee proposal was introduced by Volan at the first meeting of the year, on Jan. 8. But it has met with some resistance on the council and on the city’s administration, and it’s been revised and put off a couple of times. It will be considered next at the council’s Feb. 19 meeting.
Because the additional standing committees have not yet been created, Volan said last Wednesday that he wanted to establish a four-member ad hoc committee to handle the non-consensual towing ordinance. The membership proposed by Volan was: Dave Rollo, Sue Sgambelluri, Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Matt Flaherty.
The omission of the new law’s sponsor, Jim Sims, from the proposed committee drew a question from Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith. Volan said it was not meant as a slight of Sims, but he figured Sims would want to present the legislation as opposed to being a member of the committee.
It was Sims who moved that the law be referred to the committee of the whole on Feb. 12, and if necessary on Feb. 26 as well. Sims has not been as vocal in his opposition to standing committees as Dave Rollo and Susan Sandberg, but he’s indicated a lack of enthusiasm.
Under local code, a motion to refer to a standing committee would take precedence over the motion by Sims to refer to the committee of the whole. But Volan’s proposed committee was an ad hoc group, not a standing committee—so that provision of local code did not apply.
Dissenting on the 7–2 vote for referral to the committee of the whole were Volan and Kate Rosenbarger, both of whom have advocated for standing committees. Over a quarter (7) of the 25 roll-call votes taken so far this year by the city council have been split, with at least some yeses and some nos.
Volan weighed in against using the committee of the whole for further consideration of the towing ordinance, saying that the towing ordinance was a sensitive issue. “The committee of the whole is not a sensitive instrument,” Volan said.
Instead of having a council committee do extra work, Sandberg expressed a preference for professional staff—from the economic and sustainable development department, legal department and BPD—to hold the necessary conversations with various stakeholders and then bring back recommendations to the committee of the whole.
The towing ordinance was already considered once by the committee of the whole, on Jan. 22, after getting a first reading the week before that. The Jan. 22 meeting yielded a unanimous committee recommendation against the proposed legislation—but not because councilmembers were against it in principle.
Public commentary at the Jan. 22 committee-of-the-whole meeting made it apparent that there were some unanswered questions that meant the new law would likely need some additional work, before enactment. The council’s discussion on Jan. 22 pointed towards a non-decision on Feb. 5 (last Wednesday), when the law was back in front of the council for second reading and possible enactment.
Last Wednesday’s referral to the committee of the whole sets up the committee’s second crack at the ordinance on Feb. 12, with a possible third one on Feb. 26.