Column: Indiana’s public access counselor opinion shows Bloomington’s city council has a transparency problem

On June 10 this year, Bloomington’s city council decided to hire then-deputy council administrator/attorney Stephen Lucas to replace the retiring Dan Sherman. Lucas had been serving as Sherman’s deputy for about nine months.

Just after the meeting when the council voted to hire Lucas, The Square Beacon filed a request under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA) for an email message described during the meeting by councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith.

The email message, from council president Steve Volan to the other eight councilmembers, was described as including the dollar figure for a proposed salary, and the logic supporting that level of compensation.

The city council provided the email to The Square Beacon, but redacted a substantial portion of it.

Responding to a formal complaint by The Square Beacon, Indiana’s public access counselor has recently issued an opinion that says, “[T]he email, if at all a factor in the decision, should be made public. This is even more so when the email was teased during a public meeting.” The email clearly factored into the council’s decision to hire Lucas at the proposed salary.

The opinion continues: “As a deliberative body, it certainly seems disingenuous to argue that documented deliberative material is off limits when those materials are referenced in a public meeting.”

The opinion also notes that the APRA provides the basis for a potential lawsuit against the city council: “There is indeed a cause of action for arbitrary or capricious exercise of discretion in withholding public records. The Council will be well served being mindful of this going forward.”

In light of the public access counselor’s opinion, the city council finally produced the un-redacted email message.

Based on the un-redacted email, among the facts that the city council tried to shield from public view was a choice not to follow the advice of the human resources department in setting a salary range. The salary range suggested by human resources, as reported by Volan’s email, looks like it was about $10,000 lower than the one used by the council. Continue reading “Column: Indiana’s public access counselor opinion shows Bloomington’s city council has a transparency problem”

Opinion: Bloomington’s new city seal ordinance delivers insight into a possibilities for better legislative process

An ordinance that establishes a new city seal for Bloomington does not appear on the city council’s regular meeting agenda for Wednesday, Dec. 2.

Yet that is the date when it was proposed by the city clerk to be effective.

Those two morsels make for some pretty thin civic gruel in the post-Thanksgiving news cycle. But it’s not too thin to feed a proposal that would tweak the city council’s legislative process.

One part of the approach served up here would change a single line of the local code, which prohibits any debate on a new law when it is first introduced to the city council.

The other change to the process would make routine for all legislation a practice that the city council already uses for the annual budget: Councilmembers submit written questions, which are then answered by staff in writing, and posted for the public to review.

Before looking at that proposal in a little more detail, it’s worth adding a little meat to the legislative soup of the city seal. Continue reading “Opinion: Bloomington’s new city seal ordinance delivers insight into a possibilities for better legislative process”

Monroe County electeds mull legal fees, COVID-19 relief money, innkeepers tax, food and beverage tax

At a work session held on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, Monroe County councilors took care of some year-end appropriations, and talked with county commissioners about next year’s priorities.

A vote on extra appropriation to cover legal fees, amended by councilors from $30,000 to $18,126, was split 6–1

Screenshot of the Monroe county council’s Nov. 24 work session held by Zoom videoconference.

Some positive news was relayed from the commissioners office about the $4.7 million in CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) reimbursement funding that’s been awarded to the county. The state of Indiana has told the county to submit public safety personnel expenses as claims against the $4.7 million award.

That means the county will max out the reimbursement, according to Angie Purdie, administrator for the commissioners office.

Once the money is reimbursed to the county, it goes into the county general fund, according to Purdie, which means county councilors have flexibility to spend the money as they judge to be appropriate.

Less flexible in the way it can be spent is revenue from the countywide food and beverage tax, which is split about 90-10 between Bloomington and Monroe County government. The county’s current fund balance for the food and beverage tax is $554,194, even after distributing nearly $400,000 worth of grants for COVID-19 relief to businesses and nonprofits earlier this year.

Councilors will be weighing whether to put some of that fund balance towards additional business relief, or using it to backstop shortfalls in the revenue from the innkeepers tax, due to the COVID-pandemic. The innkeepers tax is a key source of revenue for payment of $636,000 in debt service on the land surrounding the convention center and the most recent renovation to the center.

A meeting of the county’s 5-member convention and visitors commission is set for noon on Wednesday, Dec. 9. The meetings have not typically been broadcast on CATS, but based on conversation at Tuesday’s county council work session, the link to the Zoom video conference is expected to be included on the list maintained on Monroe County’s website. Continue reading “Monroe County electeds mull legal fees, COVID-19 relief money, innkeepers tax, food and beverage tax”

COVID-19 Update: Health administrator asks everyone: “Where have you been in the last four days?”

Highlights from Wednesday’s press conference of local leaders on COVID-19 pandemic response included a couple of takeaways.

First, when the vaccine starts to arrive locally, expected in mid-December, that’s not the end of the COVID-19 marathon.

Second, part of what it means to keep running the race means keeping track of where you’ve been and who you’ve seen over the last few days. That way if you test positive, you know what to tell contact tracers.

The idea of keeping track of your own behavior, even if you have not yet tested positive, came from Monroe County health administrator Penny Caudill. She fielded a question about the followup interviews that contact tracers conduct with patients who have tested positive.

Patients are not asked if they have been in specific places, Caudill said. Rather they are asked, “Where have you been?”

Caudill then pivoted to a challenge for anyone who has not tested positive. What would you say if you had to answer the questions: “Where were you in the last four days? How many places have you been? How many people were near you without a mask within six feet? And how long is that list?”

Caudill’s caution: “If that list is more than one or two people and the people in your own household, it’s too many.” Continue reading “COVID-19 Update: Health administrator asks everyone: “Where have you been in the last four days?””

2016 versus 2020: Shades of difference leave Indiana still red, Monroe County still blue

From 2016 to 2020, not a lot changed in the general election results in the state of Indiana for the top of the ticket.

In the Hoosier state, Republican Donald Trump had 57.1 percent of the vote against Democrat Hillary Clinton. Against Joe Biden, Trump tallied about the same percentage—just one-tenth of a point lower.

But Biden did 3 points better than Clinton, with 41 percent compared to Clinton’s 38 percent. In 2016, Libertarian Gary Johnson drew almost 5 percent of the vote.

The county-by-county tally yielded a different winner in just one of Indiana’s 92 counties. In Tippecanoe County, Biden squeaked out a 0.2 point margin over Trump, a place where Trump was four points better than Clinton four years ago. That made a total of five counties blue this year, compared to four in 2016.

But the shades of difference across counties give some insight that might not be apparent from statewide or county totals.

To get a better idea of where things improved for each party, The Square Beacon plotted the difference in margins between 2020 and 2016 for the presidential race in those years.

In the shaded maps of presidential race results that are published with this article, red indicates that Trump’s margin compared to Biden was better than Trump’s margin compared to Clinton. Darker shades of red indicate a better margin for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. Blue means that Trump’s margin compared to Biden was worse than his margin compared to Clinton. Continue reading “2016 versus 2020: Shades of difference leave Indiana still red, Monroe County still blue”

Annual holiday free parking announced for downtown Bloomington, commission previews end of free parking in city garages starting in 2021

At its meeting last Thursday, Bloomington’s parking commission got a quick briefing from city garage manager Ryan Daily, about the end of first-hour-free parking in city garages downtown. That’s slated under local law for Jan. 1, 2020.

A sign at the Morton Street garage in downtown Bloomington alerts parkers that the first-hour-free policy is ending at the start of 2021. The hourly rate of $0.50 will apply to all hours parked, including the first one. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

A Monday press release from the mayor’s office makes Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 the practical end of first-hour-free parking in garages.

That’s because the press release also announced some free parking during Thanksgiving and Christmas. The mayor has discretion under local law to waive parking fees “during the holiday season.”

Jan. 1 falls on a Friday, and according to the press release, Saturday parking in city garages will be free in December. Sunday garage parking is always free. So it’s Jan. 4 that will mark the dawn of a no-free-parking era in downtown Bloomington parking garages.

According to the press release, for the week of Thanksgiving—from Thursday, (Nov. 26) through Sunday (Nov. 29)—there will be no charge for street parking downtown, where meters are normally enforced, or in city garages.

The decision to end first-hour-free parking in city garages was made more than two years ago, on a 9–0 vote of the city council. Various other changes were made to parking regulations with the same ordinance. Continue reading “Annual holiday free parking announced for downtown Bloomington, commission previews end of free parking in city garages starting in 2021”

Bloomington planning department wraps up rezoning public sessions, sets up plan commission debate in early 2021

Last week, Bloomington’s planning staff hosted two more public sessions by video conference, about possible changes to the city zoning map as well as the text of the unified development ordinance (UDO).

The UDO was repealed and replaced last year amid an acrimonious community-wide debate. Proposed changes to the zoning map were expected this year, as some newly created zoning districts R4 (residential urban) and MS (mixed-use student) appeared only in the text, but not on the map.

Not necessarily expected was a reconsideration of the text, affecting which residential districts allow for duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes. That was a main point of friction last year.

Residents of older neighborhoods who opposed the idea of plexes as allowable uses where they live, question the re-introduction of the issue, just a year after the city council voted 6–2 against plexes, even on conditional use, in R1, R2 and R3 neighborhoods.

Part of the message from planning staff over the last few weeks of video conferences with the public has focused on the preliminary nature of these late-year information sessions.

“We are not even in the public hearing process yet at all,” said Jackie Scanlan, who’s development services manager for Bloomington’s planning department. She added, “We are just in an information gathering process. We put out ideas. We are taking feedback on those, so that we can craft a draft zoning map and text amendment.”

The timeline calls for a proposal to land in front of the plan commission in the second half of January and get consideration by the city council in late March. Continue reading “Bloomington planning department wraps up rezoning public sessions, sets up plan commission debate in early 2021”

COVID-19 stats continue bad trend across state, Monroe County: “These are your friends, these are your neighbors.”

Friday’s weekly press conference of local leaders to talk about COVID-19 response came on another day of bad COVID numbers for Monroe County and the rest of Indiana.

Brian Shockney, who’s president of IU Health’s south central region, said in his region, a total of 4,438 inpatients had been tested and 556 of those have been “very, very sick.”

Shockney described the patients this way: “These are your friends, these are your neighbors. These are those people that you know, your family members.” He added, “This is a serious disease and we need to take it seriously, now more than ever.”

Monroe County itself, which includes IU Health Bloomington and Monroe Hospital is showing a continuous upward increase in patients, Shockney said. Visitor policies have been revised to eliminate visits, with a few exceptions.

Current statewide hospital census totals, according to the Indiana State Department of Health dashboard, have hit 3,077 patients. That’s about 75 percent more than the spring peak.

Confirmed case case counts continue to climb. On Friday, the statewide 7-day rolling average per day stood at around 6,500, which is six times higher than the average at the start of October. The countywide rolling average now stands at 109 confirmed cases per day, which eclipses the mid-September high of 94. That earlier spike was chalked up to the return to campus by Indiana University students. Continue reading “COVID-19 stats continue bad trend across state, Monroe County: “These are your friends, these are your neighbors.””

Monroe County GOP chair names appointment to public bus board, 90-days after term expiration with no action by Bloomington city council

In a press release issued Thursday, Monroe County Republican Party chair William Ellis announced he has named Doug Horn to the five-member board of Bloomington Transit (BT), the local public transportation corporation.

A Bloomington Transit bus waits at the downtown transit center on Nov. 17, 2020. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

Horn is a Bloomington businessman and former Monroe County plan commissioner.

It’s not the usual way appointments are made to the BT board, and might be disputed by Bloomington’s city council.

Under state statute, the seat to which Ellis has named Horn is supposed to be appointed by the Bloomington city council.

Continue reading “Monroe County GOP chair names appointment to public bus board, 90-days after term expiration with no action by Bloomington city council”