Square Beacon Benchmark: It pays to prepare for city council meetings

Now two months after the hard launch of The Square Beacon, the tally of readers who have made monthly pledges supporting this website has reached more than 50. They have pledged a total of around $500 per month.

cropped 2020-01-01 city hall IMG_4538
File photo of Bloomington’s city hall. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

If you’re one of those, thank you!

If you’re not, please consider joining them now, instead of waiting.

Pledges of $500 a month translate to $6,000 a year. That’s not enough for a person to live on. The website software tells me that  around 2,500 people visit The Square Beacon most weeks. So I’m hopeful that the number of people who help support The Square Beacon can improve to better than the current 2 percent of regular readers.

As a one-person operation, I don’t have a lot of extra time to plow into work that doesn’t somehow help The Square Beacon provide coverage of local government to Bloomington area readers.

But I will invest some extra time if I can help improve local news coverage by others.

Next week I’ll have a chance to do that. I’m supposed to talk to a class of student journalists at Indiana University’s media school about covering Bloomington’s city council. The basic idea is to walk through a quick preview of the city council’s Wednesday night agenda for March 4.

Meeting Minutes

One of the first items, approval of meeting minutes, is about as as boring as they come. Is there a story there? Maybe! It’s sure fair to ask why the council will be asked to approve minutes for meetings in May and July of 2019 at a meeting that takes place in March 2020, at least seven months later.

Doesn’t Indiana’s Open Door Law require meeting minutes to be provided in a way that’s timelier than seven months later? No. At least not the kind of “minutes” that the council is being asked to approve, which are narrative-style accounts of the meetings.

They’re the kind of meeting minutes that provide oddly-specific information like the status of paw paws as one of Indiana’s native fruits. (For bonus points, name the other.) Or the number of stitches on a standard baseball. It’s 108 double stitches and 216 single stitches, according to the Bloomington city council minutes of April 17, 2019.

What Indiana’s Open Door Law requires is that a “memo” be provided, with the basic nuts and bolts: time, day, location, attendees, actions taken and vote tallies. That’s a document that would be described in many states as the required “meeting minutes” for a public body. But Indiana’s Open Door Law calls that a “memo.” The memos for the 2019 meetings were provided shortly after the meetings took place.

So is there some requirement in Bloomington’s local law that requires the city clerk to produce narrative-style minutes? I don’t think so.

CATS now cross-posts its Bloomington city council meetings videos on YouTube. And YouTube automatically generates transcripts through its closed-captioning system. So,  I’m not sure how much added value the narrative-style minutes provide.

To be sure, the city clerk’s narrative-style minutes are way better than auto-transcripts in some important ways. YouTube is not great with names, for example. Here’s a roll-call vote from Jan. 29 as transcribed by YouTube:

28:14 we’re time councilmember Allah yes scam
28:19 burglary yeah frozen burger yes Sims yes
28:24 Bowen yes peanut Smith yes
28:27 flirty yes Smith yes Sandburg yes okay
28:33 that’s nine zero approval of the report

It will be worth paying attention on Wednesday to see if any councilmember asks: What’s up with the old minutes?

Even if there might be a story about meeting minutes that can be written based on next Wednesday’s city council meeting, I don’t think it’s urgent to write it. I don’t think any Bloomington residents will be waiting with bated breath on Wednesday night to see if the old meeting minutes get approved.

Trinitas PUD Roll Call

A meeting outcome from Wednesday that’s surely worth a timely story is the vote on the 1,000-bed Trinitas planned unit development (PUD) southeast of the interchange of I-69 and SR 45/46.

I think it’s going to be approved, based on the positive reaction of the four-member land use committee. Committee members aren’t legally bound to vote for the project on Wednesday, but it would be surprising if they didn’t. The PUD, which is just the zoning approval, not the project itself, would need just one additional vote in order to pass.

The vote could easily be unanimous. But if you’re a journalist covering a city council meeting, it’s good to be prepared, in case it isn’t. Part of being prepared is having some way to tally the votes when the roll is called. It can be challenging to try to scribble down both the names and the votes as the clerk calls the roll.

So it’s useful to have a list of councilmember names already written down, so that the only thing to listen for is how each councilmember votes. That’s easier if you know the sequence for the rollcall.

The order used by the clerk is based on the way councilmembers are seated at the dais. The seating arrangement is determined by the president of the council at the start of the year, but any two councilmembers can swap seats if they agree to it.

Based on the seating arrangement, it’s easy enough to make a list of the names in the correct sequence. The start shifts with every roll call, so it’s not the case that a councilmember goes last every time, which would allow them more easily to cast tactical or symbolic votes. Still, it’s easy enough to find the start of the roll call on your prepared list, and from there everything will be in sequence, even if you have to loop around.

If you know you’re going to nail the voting tally, that frees you up to worry about other things that readers might want to know.  For the Trinitas proposal, that includes: When will the project appear in front of plan commission? When will construction start? When will the 45 lots that Trinitas is donating to the city be ready to hand over?

It would also be nice to track down the number of dwelling units that are approved city-wide, and are in the queue for construction.

Presentations from the Administration

On Wednesday’s agenda are two presentations from the city administration that could yield stories for a well-staffed newsroom.

One presentation is from the city’s consultant that did the transportation demand management (TDM) study.  Parking is a big part of TDM. Are parking rates recommended to go up? Are parking rates recommended to be calibrated to bus fares? Are incentives recommended for car-sharing companies like Zipcar to expand their locations? How much parking do residents and visitors demand?

The TDM study is a topic that came up at the January meeting of the parking commission, a group that has had difficulty achieving a quorum recently. Of their last eight monthly meetings, they’ve cancelled four of them. Still, parking commissioners would be useful people to talk to about the TDM study.

The other presentation from the administration is by the commission on aging. I don’t know any background on that presentation. But as a starting point, I would cruise through some of the old meeting minutes, which can found linked from the commission’s webpage.

The meeting minutes from May 2019 reflect some dissatisfaction by commissioners with the way that the city administration has interacted with the commission. One of the former commissioners is Ron Smith, who now serves on the city council. He also works for the Area 10 Agency on Aging. So he’d be the guy I would talk to about this if I wanted to think about writing up a story out of Wednesday’s meeting.

Conclusion

As a one-person operation I don’t have the capacity to write every story that I’ve sketched out here.

As I say in the basic fundraising pitch, I have committed to this one-person local news operation through the end of 2020. By year’s end I’d like to hit $40,000 a year in pledges in order to continue into 2021.

But my goal is a bit more ambitious than that. What I’d like to achieve is a newsroom, not just a one-person operation, that is funded just by readers. That way, more of the stories that could be written will actually get written.

Please consider supporting The Square Beacon on Patreon.

Leave a Reply