Analysis: Bloomington city council scrutinizes its committee structure, annual budget process

At a work session held on Dec. 21, Bloomington’s city council reviewed the way it handles ordinary legislation during the year.

Based on “city council” by Thomas Deckert from the Noun Project

Ten days earlier, on Dec. 11, the council had reviewed the way it handles the main piece of legislation it approves every year, which is the city’s annual budget.

Based on discussion at those two meetings, 2021 could see some changes in the council’s legislative procedures compared to 2020, even if those changes might not be radical.

The city council’s 2021 activity could play out in part based on the answer to two key questions.

The first question: How big a role will four-member standing committees play in the ordinary legislative process? Several new standing committees were created by the council this year, on a 5–4 vote taken in February.

The possible impact of standing committees on the council’s legislative process was the focus of a report compiled by the city council’s legal researcher about durations of all meeting types over the last six years.  The report was the basis for the city council’s discussion at its Dec. 21 special meeting.

Whether legislation in 2021 is referred to a four-person standing committee, the council’s committee of the whole, or no committee at all, could be affected by the council’s choice of a president at its first meeting of the year on Jan. 6.

The second question: Is there a point on the calendar when the city council could have a chance to have a meaningful impact on the mayor’s proposed budget?

A highlight of the budget process, from the city council’s point of view, has traditionally been its “budget advance” meeting held sometime in the spring. Councilmembers outline the kinds of elements they want to see in the budget that gets proposed by the mayor in August.

Having participated in the development of quarter century’s worth of city budgets, on Dec. 11 this year, deputy mayor Mick Renneisen sized up the role of the city council’s budget advance this way: “I’ve yet to hear anything in the budget advance that has significantly impacted our budget.” He added, “It’s too general and it’s too soon.”

That leaves the door open to scheduling of city council budget input later than spring, but earlier than late August.

Standing committees

The creation of several new standing committees came on Feb. 19, after they were proposed at the council’s first meeting of 2020. It was the same meeting when the council formally took a vote on its choice of Steve Volan as council president.

The council discussed standing committees at a couple of work sessions after the proposal was first introduced.

The standing committee proposal was the work of newly chosen council president Steve Volan, who had been unsuccessful in achieving majority support for a slate of standing committees in 2012. That year it failed on a 3-4-1 vote.

In seven years, the arguments for standing committees don’t appear to have changed much. From the May 2, 2012 council meeting minutes:

Councilmember Volan explained the legislation which he had proposed regarding standing committees and said this proposal would allow for more time to consider legislation by extending the legislative cycle and hearing legislation in standing committees rather than in a Committee of the Whole. Volan said this plan would allow a 4-week legislative cycle, which he said other cities currently have. He said one of the key goals is to lengthen the amount of time to consider legislation. He added that standing committees would allow members to separate salient from nominal issues.

That year’s 4–5 tally on the vote to establish standing committees saw Volan, Dave Rollo, Marty Spechler and Andy Ruff voting yes. Darryl Neher, Dorothy Granger, Chris Sturbaum, Susan Sandberg and Timothy Mayer voted no.

From The Square Beacon’s reporting of the proposal made at the first council meeting of 2020:

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; and more precise scheduling of committee hearings, compared to a committee-of-the-whole approach.

The issues discussed in 2012 were much the same, even if the names of the councilmembers are now different. One of the concerns was the amount of paperwork involved in posting notices of the separate committee meetings and creating the documentation for the proceedings of meetings. Another concern was the idea that in many cases all nine councilmembers would want to be involved through the entire process and attend committee meetings anyway. That would undercut arguments based on time savings.

The 5–4 split on the council in February of 2020 included affirmative votes from Volan, Matt Flaherty, Kate Rosenbarger, Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Sue Sgambelluri. Voting against the establishment of standing committees this year were Rollo, Sandberg, Jim Sims and Ron Smith.

In 2012, as well as in 2020, the idea of referring legislation to standing committees was promoted as just one additional option, in addition to the possibility of making a referral to the council’s committee of the whole. It would be up to the city council to decide how to make the referral on a case-by-case basis, when the legislation was introduced.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the council adopted the practice of giving the council president the authority to make a preliminary committee assignment—to a standing committee, or to the committee of the whole—before the legislation is introduced. The president’s preliminary referral could then be altered by a majority of the full council at first reading. A pending ordinance change would make that practice a permanent part of the city code.

On the motion to extend the council president’s authority to make preliminary committee assignments through the end of 2020, Sandberg abstained on the otherwise unanimous vote.

It was Sandberg who brought the motion earlier in the year, on July 22, to override Volan’s preliminary referral of a significant appropriation ordinance to the council’s standing committee on sustainable development. It was the appropriation ordinance required by the first phase of Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s Recover Forward initiative.

Sandberg’s motion to refer the Recover Forward appropriation to the council’s committee of the whole was subjected to 30 minutes of council debate, before winning approval on a 7–2 vote. Dissent came only from Volan and Piedmont-Smith.

Voan and Piedmont-Smith both now take the view that 10 months is not enough time to evaluate whether standing committees are serving their purpose.

Standing committees: Council officers

The person who is chosen council president on Jan. 6, the first meeting of the year, could have a lot of influence on possible changes to the council’s legislative process. The timing of that choice, of council president and vice president, is prescribed by state statute.

The state law does not require that a city council have a parliamentarian. But a parliamentarian is a requirement of Bloomington’s local law.

Even if the council chooses not to extend the council president’s authority to make a preliminary referral of legislation to a committee, the council president can exert some influence on the committee referral process.

Under Bloomington city code, the council president has to appoint just three members to any standing committee, even though the standing committees established this year are defined as having four members.

The current officers are: Steve Volan (president); Jim Sims (vice president); and Isabel Piedmont-Smith (parliamentarian).

It’s not common for someone to repeat as council president. The Square Beacon counted just a half dozen cases in the last half century: Daryl Neher (2013–14), Chris Gaal (2002–03), Timothy Mayer (1998–2000), Pat Gross (1984–85), Tomilea Allison (1979–80), and Charlotte Zietlow (1972–73).

The pattern of choosing someone as vice president then president the following year, is attested about 40 percent of the time. It has happened 20 times in the last 50 years.

Standing Committees: Meeting duration

The report compiled by the city council’s staff includes figures on meeting duration dating back six years.

For Volan, a key stat was the amount of time saved by councilmembers who did not have to attend standing committee meetings of which they were not members.

The report gives a total duration of 3,507 minutes for standing committees, which have four members. That means the five members who were not members of the committee weren’t obligated to attend, saving each of them those minutes. That made for made for 17,535 (5*3,507) total saved minutes by the five non-committee members. On average across the whole council, non-committee members saved 1,948 minutes (17,535/9) or about 32 hours of meeting time.

For the public or a councilmember like Sue Sgambelluri, who also attended meetings of standing committees of which she was not a member, the total meeting duration was the key stat.

The total duration for meetings of all types in 2020 was 10,707 minutes (178.5 hours) compared to 10,515 minutes (175 hours) in 2019. That’s consistent with an upward trend since 2015, when the council logged just 6,559 total meeting minutes, which is about 60 percent of the total in each of the last two years.

Sgambelluri said, “It is striking to me that committees didn’t save time as I thought they would. Maybe I’m just a geek, but it actually helps me to attend all the committees where legislation is being discussed.” She continued, “I know that I am not required to attend meetings for committees of which I’m not a member, but I find it helpful to hear different questions about legislation.”

Sgambelluri added, “My interest in and commitment to committees extends only as far as its ability to produce better legislation and better decisions. And that’s what I’m thinking about. That’s what I need to think more about. Did this system actually make us better at this? And did we pass better legislation?”

Councilmember Matt Flaherty questioned the primacy of meeting duration as the focus of the metric. “Too short of a duration may indicate poor-quality decision making. … Too long of a duration may indicate inefficiencies, or it may not.” Flaherty added, “Comparing current durations to the durations of the last several years, of course, anchors us to the durations of the last several years, as if that were a good duration—maybe the current duration is good.”

Standing Committees: Impact on staff

Asked for comment on the way standing committee structure impacts the city clerk’s workload, Nicole Bolden pointed to the fact that separate standing committee meetings, compared to a single committee-of-the-whole meeting, has increased the number of memos the clerk’s office must produce for the meetings. Memos in this context are bare bones meeting minutes that are required to be created under Indiana’s Open Door law.

City council administrator-attorney Stephen Lucas gave a similar assessment. He said, “I will say there is more work involved for council staff with standing committees.” He continued, “That’s not a judgment on whether that’s a good thing or bad thing. We’re here to help the council do the work it wants to.” Lucas attributed some extra work to the need to create committee reports for the full council. He said, “Those standing committee reports are often prepared either by the committee members themselves, which is more work for you all, but often by staff as well. So coordinating those records and documents is a bit more work.”

The scheduling of several committee meetings in sequence on one evening, instead of a single committee-of-the-whole meeting creates the potential for dead time between meetings that would not arise if all items were considered at a single meeting.

About the dead time, Bolden said that as long as meetings are conducted by Zoom, it’s not as cumbersome to deal with meeting dead time. When in-person meetings resume after the pandemic, Bolden said, “That is something that we’re going to have to consider, because that means that a staff member will be in the office on the clock.”

Lucas also pointed to the uncertainty about which committee will be hearing a given piece of legislation, before it is referred to a committee.

A lack of predictability for how much time piece of legislation would require to make it to a final vote was a problematic point for the city administration. Deputy mayor Mick Renneisen said, “One of the variables that was difficult for us was not knowing if it was going to go to two committee meetings or one.”

That’s because a standing committee does not owe a report back to the full council until the second regular council meeting after the item was referred to the committee. The committee itself, with support from just three councilmembers, can extend the time for consideration by two weeks. The full city council could also extend the time for consideration by two weeks, but it would take a five-member majority to do it.

Renneisen said, “While there was always the first reading and eventually a landing point in the final consideration,…the unknown was the in-between. You didn’t know if there’s one or two committee meetings.”

Volan’s response to the uncertainty of the the time—two weeks or four—was to pitch the four-week time frame as the expected one. “You should assume that it should take four weeks, not two, for legislation to pass. And when council comes back early, that’s a bonus. And most of the time we’ve been offering bonuses.”

Budget Process

Late August is when the council holds its hearings on the administration’s draft budget. At the end of September is when the administration presents the final version to the council. In early October, the budget gets adopted.

Sometime in the spring, the city council has traditionally held a meeting known as the “budget advance” meeting, when councilmembers talk about their priorities for the next year’s budget. Here’s how a Square Beacon column from earlier in the year described the process:

From what I can tell of Bloomington’s budgeting process, the city council’s role can be compared to planting seeds in May, then waiting patiently until late August, to see if any of them sprouted.

This year some councilmembers expressed frustration that their suggestions for the budget were not reflected in any changes made by the administration. Piedmont-Smith and Flaherty made explicit comments about their frustration. Flaherty went as far as to vote against the annual budget.

At the Dec. 11 city council work session, councilmember Jim Sims said he did not think the budget advance meeting could have much of an effect on planning, because solid revenue projections are not known that early in the year. Sims said, “I’m not so sure how important the budget advance meeting is, with the exception of setting a broad outline.”

Deputy mayor Mick Renneisen commented on the significance of the budget advance city council meeting. He prefaced his remarks by saying, “I’ve been a part of the development of 25 budgets in my city career.” Renneisen did not mince words when he continued, “Now, do not take this the wrong way: I’ve yet to hear anything in the budget advance that has significantly impacted our budget. It’s too general and it’s too soon.”

At the budget advance meeting, Renneisen said, the council typically expresses priorities in such general terms that “No wonder you’re disappointed.” Renneisen suggested moving the budget advance meeting to a point later in the year that is closer to the time when city staff are working on actual budget numbers.

Councilmember Susan Sandberg was cautious about the council overstepping its role in a strong mayor system of local government like Bloomington’s. She suggested that the council might need a refresher course on what a strong mayor system means.

Sandberg said that for the first time since her service on the city council started, in 2007, she’s starting to see a bit of “micromanaging” from the council. It is the department heads and city staff who do the day-to-day work of the city, she said, concluding, “So they are much more informed about what they do and why they do it than we possibly could be.”

At the Dec. 11 work session councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith disavowed any intention of micromanaging. She floated a suggestion that entailed the council taking votes on recommended amendments to the administration’s proposed budget. Those amendments that achieved a majority of council votes would become a part of the council’s message to the administration. Piedmont-Smith’s suggestion was consistent in many ways with a proposal made by The Square Beacon in one of the regular morning email messages sent to its subscriber list in early October.

Responding to Piedmont-Smith’s suggestion, Renneisen joked, “I’m getting hives.” His concern was that the council might have majority support for two amendments that were not logically consistent with each other. What should the administration do in that case?

In his remarks, Volan cautioned against an expectation that 2021 would see a completely overhauled budget process for the 2022 budget. He figured a new process might begin sometime in 2022 for the 2023 budget. Volan said, “So I don’t want anyone to have any illusions about what’s happening today, or what we’re trying to do here.”

Volan added, “This is just the beginning of an exploration to ask: Is there a more optimum way to budget that serves everyone’s needs and interests?”

One thought on “Analysis: Bloomington city council scrutinizes its committee structure, annual budget process

  1. Dave,
    Thanks for the excellent coverage and superb analysis you provide for the community. It really is top notch. Happy Holidays.

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