Bloomington city council looks to maintain normal legislative pace for assigning emergency powers to mayor

New2 Statute 2020-04-05 at 4.01.55 AM

Now added to the agenda of next Tuesday’s meeting of Bloomington’s city council is an ordinance that’s designed to provide some additional administrative powers to the city’s mayor, John Hamilton.

The additional powers are meant to provide some flexibility for the city’s executive to act swiftly in response to emergent issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As currently drafted, the ordinance includes a mix of permanent and relatively temporary measures. One part of the ordinance would amend the city code on human resources policies. That part would be permanent—it would be made a part of local law. But the wording of the new policies in the code means they’re triggered only if a national or state disaster emergency is declared.

Two other parts of the proposed ordinance appear to be worded so that they apply only as long as Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s current statewide disaster emergency order is in effect. That order has been extended through May 5.

Tied to that specific order, the mayor is given power to act under the state’s emergency management statute to waive various requirements for governmental action. The city controller is given broad authority to “approve payment of all necessary expenditures.”

On Friday at noon, the city council convened a work session to get briefed on the legislation that the administration is asking the council to enact.

Enactment of the emergency measures by the Bloomington council is not scheduled for a final vote for two more weeks, on April 22.

Among other items, Bloomington’s ordinance addresses how employees are compensated, if they’re ordered by the mayor to stay home. Generally, under the proposed ordinance, such employees are paid, but have to be available for duty if called. They also can’t use the time they’re supposed to be working at home for the city to earn money at a different job. Bloomington’s city hall has been closed since March 25.

A similar kind of ordinance, with wording that’s mostly identical to the one Bloomington’s city council will be considering, was enacted by Jeffersonville’s city council in the third week of March. The Jeffersonville city council took the approach of amending the year’s salary ordinance, not changing local code.

At Friday’s work session, corporation counsel Philippa Guthrie told city councilmembers: “We need flexibility to perhaps spend money, but otherwise just take actions like—I know we had a request this morning to use a city facility for a homeless shelter, an isolation unit.” Guthrie added, “We can’t predict what [the requests] are, they’re just going to keep coming up.”

On Friday, three members of the mayor’s administration—Guthrie, deputy mayor Mick Renneisen, and controller Jeff Underwood—heard a clear consensus from the councilmembers who joined the Zoom video conference call: Local legislators support the idea of giving the city’s executive branch the power to act swiftly.

The legislation that the council is being asked to pass relies in part on the state’s emergency management statute, which gives “each political subdivision” the power to waive the procedures required by law for governmental actions. Among the waive-able requirements are those for the performance of public work, signing contracts, and the appropriation and expenditure of public funds.

The statute doesn’t specifically identify the executive or the legislative branch with its reference to “a political subdivision,” so it’s not clear if the council’s action is even required—at least for the parts of the proposed ordinance that don’t change the city code.

Guthrie told the council, “We want to be sure that you know what we are doing, because we are doing these things, and we will have to do some of these things, and we think both branches of the government should be on the same page with this.”

Responding to a question from councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, about the role of the city council, Guthrie said about the mayor’s administration and the council: “We’re all the municipality. I don’t think we wanted the administration being alone on this boat, sailing along on new procedures and paths, without you being on board as well.”

At Friday’s work session, Guthrie reported that council president Steve Volan, who did not attend Zoom videoconference, had asked her if the ordinance needs to be “rushed through” and done next week.

What “rushing through” would mean for the council is to accelerate its legislative process by approving a second reading of an ordinance on the same day, and at the same meeting, as the first reading is given.

That quicker procedure was used by the council in the last week of March, when it gave final approval to a water works bond re-funding ordinance on the same night when it got its first reading.  The faster process is allowed under city code, but it requires a unanimous vote.

The two parts of the proposed Bloomington ordinance that don’t change the city code could be treated separately, as a resolution, instead of an ordinance. A resolution doesn’t require a first and a second reading like an ordinance does. A resolution is typical tool for actions by governing bodies that are tied to a specific temporal event, like a specific order of the governor, to be handled through a resolution.

On March 23, the Plainfield town council used a resolution to give its president, who’s the executive in township government, the kind of powers that Bloomington’s city council is being asked to give the mayor, under the same emergency management statute.

About the lack of urgency for the proposed ordinance, Guthrie said at Friday’s work session, “We were doing it just in excess of caution, to make sure that we have this in place and we’re all on the same page.”

If the city council’s enactment of the proposed ordinance is a matter of exercising caution, what is the ordinance guarding against?

Based on back-and-forth at the council’s Friday work session, part of the motivation for Bloomington’s ordinance is a series of memos that have been issued to local jurisdictions statewide by the State Board of Accounts, on the topic of the COVID-19 emergency.

Guthrie said on Friday that the general theme of the SBOA memos is the importance of having an explicit policy in place for any special procedure that’s being used during the COVID-19 crisis.

About that basic message from the SBOA, Guthrie said, “They don’t really define policy, but an ordinance is a policy.” The ordinance can then be cited when the SBOA audits the city’s books.

One thought on “Bloomington city council looks to maintain normal legislative pace for assigning emergency powers to mayor

  1. This is a great article that explains safeguards against the Mayor acting alone. This should be published widely to understand why the Mayor can’t automatically just give over a city building.

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