Bloomington city council makes procedural debate out of prep for deliberations on homeless encampment ordinance

A proposed new Bloomington law that would provide some protections to encampments of houseless people has been referred to the city council’s committee of the whole.

On Wednesday night, after the proposed law’s first reading, the city council decided that its committee of the whole will meet next week, on Feb. 24 at 6:30 p.m., to deliberate on the encampment protections.

Under local law, no debate or amendments are allowed at a first reading.

The ordinance could have been referred to the council’s four-member standing committee on public safety. But that motion failed on a 4–5 vote.

Voting for referral to the standing committee on public safety were: Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Steve Volan, Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger.

The city council’s public safety standing committee is made up of Piedmont-Smith, Volan, Susan Sandberg, and Jim Sims.

That means the public safety committee members were split 2–2 on the question of whether to refer the proposed encampment protections to their smaller group of four, compared to the group of all nine councilmembers.

With a referral to the public safety committee no longer a possibility, the vote to send the proposed new law to the committee of the whole was 9–0.

The contentious vote on committee referral was consistent with ongoing skirmishes among councilmembers over the creation and use of standing committees.

The most recent tussling over committees has lasted more than a year. But the issue itself can be traced at least as far back as 2012, when the council considered the question of establishing several standing committees and rejected the idea with just three votes in favor.

More recently, the question of creating several new standing committees was decided on a 5-to-4 tally, in a vote taken on Feb. 19 last year (2020).

The five-vote majority needed to pass the Feb. 19, 2020 resolution on standing committees, was achieved with the support of Sue Sgambelluri, in addition to the four who voted on Wednesday to refer the encampment protections ordinance to the public safety committee (Piedmont-Smith, Volan, Flaherty, and Rosenbarger).

If the motion to refer the matter to the committee of the whole had been entertained first, the outcome would have almost certainly been the same, even if the tally had been 5–4, instead of unanimous. But under prevailing local law that night, Piedmont-Smith’s motion to refer the matter to a standing committee had to be entertained before a motion to refer it to the committee of the whole.

Those favoring a referral to the committee of the whole pointed to the fact that five councilmembers would be excluded from the debate, even if they could offer amendments for discussion, conveyed through committee members.

Those who supported sending the proposed law to the standing committee on public safety said that sending it to one committee or the other was not a measure of the topic’s importance.

Piedmont-Smith argued that because the public safety committee had, in the second week of January, held a hearing on homelessness issues, it would be natural to follow up on that hearing with consideration of the proposed ordinance offering protections to park encampments.

Piedmont-Smith, along with Flaherty and Rosenbarger, is a co-sponsor of the encampment protections ordinance.

The January hearing by the city council’s public safety committee came on the same night when the city of Bloomington cleared the Seminary Park encampment for a second time.

Wednesday’s meeting made for the last time, at least for a while, that a motion to refer to a standing committee will have to be considered before motion to refer to a standing committee.

That’s because the council also approved an ordinance on Wednesday that strikes from local law the following sentence about the sequencing of motions on committee referral: “Motions for referral to a standing committee shall be entertained before a motion for referral to the committee of the whole and shall include the approximate time at which the committee will convene.”

The striking of that sentence was part of an ordinance that covered a wide range of topics. Among them was a change to the way the required fiscal impact statements for legislation are described. Fiscal impact statements are still required.

The striking of the sentence that sequences motions on committee referral was subjected to about a half hour of debate, before it was decided on a 5–4 vote in favor of striking the sentence,

It was Sgambelluri who put the forward the idea to strike the sentence with the sequencing of motions on committee referrals. She had supported formation of standing committees a year ago. The other four who had supported formation of standing committees made up the minority on the vote to strike the sentence.

About the proposal to strike the sentence, Sgambelluri said that the sentence had been “described as language that would essentially force council to try committees, to essentially put a thumb on the scale, so to speak, and nudge legislation toward toward a standing committee, rather than toward committee of the whole.”

After almost a year, Sgambelluri said, “Councilmembers have had a chance to see committees at work, both for actual legislation and for topics that are not the subject of legislation.” She added, “We’ve had a chance to see how they work. We should no longer require a thumb on the scale, to force them to be sent to a standing committee or to committee of the whole.”

Robert’s Rules of Order—which Bloomington’s local law says are supposed to govern any parliamentary procedures that are not otherwise spelled out in the local law itself—puts consideration of a referral to committee of the whole ahead of a referral to a standing committee:

In completing a motion simply to refer to a committee, the first question the chair asks is, “To what committee shall the question be referred?” If different ones are suggested, the suggestions are not treated as amendments of those previously offered, but are voted on in the following order until one receives a majority vote: Committee of the whole; as if in committee of the whole; consider informally; standing committee, in the order in which they are proposed; special (select) committee (largest number voted on first).
Robert’s Rules of Order

Those councilmembers speaking in favor of Sgambelluri’s proposal pointed to the council president as a kind of traffic controller for referral to the appropriate committee.

Another change that was included in the ordinance added a sentence made that traffic controller role explicit: “The president shall have the authority to refer legislation to the appropriate committee when the legislation is introduced for first reading, but such a referral may be changed by a motion approved by a majority of the council.”

Councilmember Dave Rollo, who co-sponsored the proposal with Sgambelluri, said, “I trust the president’s discretion in terms of deciding where the legislation should be directed. But it does allow the provision that it could be directed by the council, if needed.”

The most vocal opponent of Sgambelluri’s proposal was Volan, who was the architect of the standing committee proposal in 2012 and again last year.

Volan said on Wednesday that he was still opposed to Sgambelluri’s proposal to strike the sentence that sequences motions, but had somewhat softened his stance since the previous week’s administration committee meeting. At that meeting, he had accused Rollo and Susan Sandberg, a third co-sponsor, of being “insincere” and said they were simply trying to undo the organization of the standing committees.

On Wednesday, Volan said, “I do oppose this amendment…not as stridently as I did, when I first heard it. I recognize the intent of the sponsors to make it a little less cumbersome to determine how to take up legislation.”

He said about those who voted against standing committees a year ago, “It seems like they can’t wait to undo what we began last year.” Volan concluded, “Nevertheless, despite my opposition to it, it’s not the most dramatic change. It’s not the end of the world.”

One thought on “Bloomington city council makes procedural debate out of prep for deliberations on homeless encampment ordinance

  1. It would be interesting to learn how much time was spent on procedural debates vs ordnance or resolutions. I think I remember a 20 or 30 minute discussion on whether the meeting should continue past the predetermined (according to bylaws) 10:30 end time

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