Indiana bill on checking executive authority gets first committee hearing

Getting a first committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon was a bill that would put the state legislature in a position to have a say on extending the Indiana governor’s executive orders related to a disaster emergency.

Representative Matt Pierce asks a question during the Jan. 12, 2021 meeting of the House standing committee on rules and procedures. The image is a screen grab from the live video that the General Assembly makes available for committee hearings.

HB 1123 is one of several bills that deal with executive powers, which have been referred to the House standing committee on rules and procedures.

The bills are a reaction by legislators to Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holcomb, who is a Republican in a state where both chambers of the legislature have better than two-thirds Republican majorities, issued an executive order declaring a public health emergency on March 6, 2020. The governor has extended the executive order several times since then, in 30-day increments. The state of emergency is still in effect.

HB 1123 was authored by representative Matt Lehman, a Republican whose District 79 covers a swatch of the state that’s south of Fort Wayne.

The initial draft proposed by Lehman would prevent a governor’s order from continuing for longer than 30 days, unless the General Assembly is in session, or the governor has called for a special session of the legislature. Continue reading “Indiana bill on checking executive authority gets first committee hearing”

Seminary Park encampment not yet cleared, chance comes up for 50 more shelter beds

Reduced in number but remaining in place on Monday night, was Bloomington’s Seminary Park encampment of people who are experiencing homelessness.

The enforcement action, which Bloomington’s city administration had warned would come “on or about Jan. 11” looks like it might be taken about Jan. 11, not exactly on the date.

As of around 1 a.m. no action had been taken by the Bloomington police department (BPD) to remove anyone from the park.

The apparent lack of enforcement action at Seminary Park came after the late afternoon news of possibly 50 additional shelter beds that might become available.

Beacon, Inc. executive director Forrest Gilmore said on Facebook that he’d walked the city’s fire chief, Jason Moore, through a warehouse space that Gilmore described as looking like a viable low barrier winter shelter. Continue reading “Seminary Park encampment not yet cleared, chance comes up for 50 more shelter beds”

Press release: New strain of COVID-19 in Hoosier state, vaccine dashboard gets daily update

Indiana’s department of health issued a press release just before noon on Monday (Dec. 11) saying that a new strain of COVID-19, previously identified in the United Kingdom, has been found in the state of Indiana.

According to the press release, the new strain does not cause more severe infections, but spreads easier. The state’s health commissioner, Kris Box, is quoted in the release saying, “It’s common for viruses to mutate, and we are seeing that occur with COVID-19.”

The quote from Box continues, “Because this strain of the virus can be transmitted more easily, it’s more important than ever that Hoosiers continue to wear their masks, practice social distancing, maintain good hygiene and get vaccinated when they are eligible.”

[Updated on Jan. 11, 2021 at 3:57 p.m. A spokesperson for the state’s department of health responded to a Square Beacon question about the possibility of separate tracking of the new strain by saying, “We do not intend to track it differently on the dashboard.” That’s because “It is normal for viruses to mutate, but the disease the virus caused – COVID-19 – is unchanged,” according to the spokesperson.]

The vaccine mentioned in Box’s quote is part of another update in the press release—about the state’s vaccine dashboard. It will now be updated daily, according to the release. Since its initial launch in recent weeks, it has been updated just on Wednesdays. Continue reading “Press release: New strain of COVID-19 in Hoosier state, vaccine dashboard gets daily update”

Column: B Clear bunnies, in case you need a carrot to dive into data

Like many cities in America, Bloomington uses its website to offer a pile of municipal data to the public.

Bloomington’s data warehouse is branded as B Clear Open Data.

When an item appears on the city council agenda, or an issue becomes controversial in the community, it’s always worth a quick search on B Clear Open Data.

Often a useful dataset is just sitting there, waiting to be analyzed.

Examples of the myriad datasets that have helped inform Square Beacon coverage include: water main breaks, the use of Lenco Bearcat armored vehicle, the ethic breakdown of fire department employees, and shared electric scooter usage.

Plotting out data is not everyone’s cup of tea. I once worked in a newsroom where the page designer dismissed a bar chart I’d built to support a piece I’d written: “If you’ve seen one bar chart, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

Even if you don’t have the inclination or skills to analyze the datasets in B Clear, it’s still worth rummaging around to see what’s there. If you don’t care to analyze the data, just scroll through the records.

Use your own eyeballs to see what might be lurking in those records. Continue reading “Column: B Clear bunnies, in case you need a carrot to dive into data”

COVID-19 update: Bloomington city employee cases add up as vaccine rollout starts

Confirmed cases of city of Bloomington employees based on press releases.

Indiana’s state department of health announced mid-week that people 80 years and older are now eligible to register for an appointment to receive the vaccine. That was the main newsy bit at Friday’s press conference of local leaders about response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Up to now, just frontline healthcare workers have been able to get the vaccine.

According to the 2019 American Community Survey estimates, about 5,000 people who are 80 or older live in Monroe County. That’s out of a total population of about 148,000.

Registration in advance is required. The state has set up a vaccine registration website.

About half of the deaths caused by COVID-19 in the state of Indiana, and in Monroe County, have been among those who are 80 years or older.

As the first of the vaccine doses start to get distributed in Monroe County, the number of confirmed cases for the first week of the year has seen a recent upward trend. After trending downward for the last four weeks of the year, from a rolling 7-day average of around 100 cases to the mid-40s, the rolling average is now back up to around 75.

The adding up of raw case numbers was highlighted by Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, at Friday’s health conference. Hamilton ticked through the stats for the number of city employees who have received a positive COVID-19 test.

From April through October, the city had seen one positive test among its employees every two weeks. But in November, one employee was diagnosed every two days, he said. Since the start of December, Hamilton said, the rate of employee positive tests has been two every three days. Continue reading “COVID-19 update: Bloomington city employee cases add up as vaccine rollout starts”

Seminary Park encampment clearance still on course for “on or about” Jan. 11

Jan. 11 is still the date when Bloomington is planning to clear an encampment from the area around Seminary Park at 2nd Street and College Avenue, city officials say.

Estimates of the number of people who are staying there, reporting that they have no other place to go, vary from a dozen and a half up to more than 50, with additional numbers socializing there during the day.

Since the Dec. 9 clearance of the park by the city, the strip of public right-of-way along the road, and probably a little more, has been re-established as a place where people are sleeping, socializing and storing their warming accoutrements.

Early the week of Jan. 4, city staff planted signs on stakes in the area, giving notice of the clearance date. It is described on the signs as “on or about” Jan. 11. Some of the signs were immediately pushed over by park campers.

The signs include the text: “It is our hope that everyone currently in the Seminary Park area will find safe shelter/housing alternatives by January 11 by taking advantage of the opportunities available through the agencies that serve those experiencing homelessness.”

The suggested contact points listed out on the signs include: Beacon/Shalom Center, Friend’s Place, Wheeler Mission, New Hope Family Shelter, Amethyst House, Perry Township trustee’s office, and Middle Way House.

It was before Christmas when the city settled on the Jan. 11 date.

The more recent signage can be analyzed as a response to the criticism that the city gave no clear indication that enforcement action was imminent before its Dec. 9 park clearance. It came just after the board of park commissioners had declined the administration’s request to extend a nighttime prohibition of camping to daytime hours. Continue reading “Seminary Park encampment clearance still on course for “on or about” Jan. 11”

Election board reviews balloting, tees up hearings on electioneering charge, fine for late finance form

At its meeting on Thursday, Monroe County’s election board set its next meeting, on Feb. 4, as the time when it will hear charges of electioneering at the polls during early voting.

Screen shot of Jan. 7, 2021 Monroe County election board meeting. Election supervisor Karen Wheeler is holding up a list of incomplete registrations that she wants board members to sign.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the board reviewed candidates with delinquent campaign finance forms.

Thursday’s board meeting included a report on a survey of people who worked the polls for the 2020 elections. The survey showed mostly positive results.

The elections also heard a review during public commentary from a voter’s perspective, given by longtime poll workers Marge and Jim Faber.

Marge Faber told the board, “As a voter, I want to tell you, that was the most fantastic voting experience I’ve ever had.” She added, “And given my age, that means over 60 years worth of voting, because I’ve never missed an election.”

After suggesting some additional signage for the Arlington Elementary School location, Faber wrapped up, saying, “Otherwise, it was fantastic. I should have written you a note earlier, and I forgot.” Thursday’s board meeting marked Faber’s 88th birthday.

At Thursday’s meeting, the chairship of the three-member board transitioned from one party’s appointee to the other, in a longstanding mutually-agreed tradition. Republican Party appointee Hal Turner, who chaired the board in 2020, passed the virtual gavel to Democratic Party appointee Carolyn VandeWiele. The third member of the board is the Monroe County clerk, who is currently Nicole Browne.

In his introductory remarks, Turner commented on the previous day’s events in Washington D.C. when pro-Trump rioters had stormed the Capitol.

“Yesterday, we saw not just an illegal act by 52 people who invaded the Capitol building, but also a gross insult to our democracy and the republic that makes our form of democracy possible,” Turner said.

Turner continued, “But the sanctity of the Constitution ultimately prevailed. And good women and men were not deterred from their sacred constitutional obligations. To quote our Indiana senator Todd Young, on the steps of the Capitol yesterday, ‘When it comes to the law, our opinions don’t matter. The law matters. I took an oath under God.’”
Continue reading “Election board reviews balloting, tees up hearings on electioneering charge, fine for late finance form”

Contested Bloomington plan commission seat goes to Sandberg

On Wednesday at its first meeting of the year, Bloomington’s city council decided on a 5–4 vote that Susan Sandberg, not Isabel Piedmont-Smith, would serve as its appointment to the city plan commission in 2021.

It was a night when the council settled on a raft of appointments of its own members to various boards and commissions.

That included the appointment of Sandberg to the city plan commission. She’s served on the nine-member group for the last couple of years.

Sandberg’s appointment to the plan commission was the only one that required a vote of the council to settle the question of which councilmember would serve. A couple of other competing councilmember interests were resolved when one deferred to the other.

Voting for Sandberg to serve on plan commission were: Sandberg, Dave Rollo, Jim Sims, Sue Sgambelluri, and Ron Smith. Voting for Piedmont-Smith were: Piedmont-Smith, Steve Volan, Kate Rosenbarger, and Matt Flaherty.

The plan commission this year will be in the political spotlight probably by the end of January, when it takes up the question of zone map revisions and proposed text amendments to the UDO.

Continue reading “Contested Bloomington plan commission seat goes to Sandberg”

New Bloomington city council president Jim Sims: “This is a transition of leadership, not a transfer of power.”

On Wednesday night, Bloomington’s city council chose Jim Sims as its new president for 2021 and Sue Sgambelluri as its vice president.

It’s a requirement under state law that the council selects a president and vice president from among its members at the first meeting of the year. Sims served as vice president in 2020.

During the meeting, which was held by video-conference due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, Sims took the virtual gavel from Steve Volan, who served as president during 2020. Volan presided over Wednesday’s meeting up to the point of the officer elections.

Earlier in the day on Wednesday, rioters who supported U.S. President Donald Trump, despite his election loss, had stormed into the Capitol on the day when Congress was supposed to certify the 2020 Electoral College votes.

The transition between city council presidents was peaceful. Said Sims, “This is a transition of leadership, not a transfer of power.”

Sims is one of three at-large representatives on the nine-member council, which is the legislative branch of the city government. The other six councilmembers represent geographic districts of the city. Sgambelluri represents District 2, which covers the northwest side of town.

The other officer chosen on Wednesday was Matt Flaherty as parliamentarian. Though it’s not required for city councils in Indiana to choose a parliamentarian, it’s written into Bloomington’s local law.  Like Sims, Flaherty is an at-large representative, elected by voters of the whole city. Last year, Isabel Piedmont-Smith served as parliamentarian.

The vote on the new officers was unanimous.

Flaherty and Sgambelluri are two of the four councilmembers who were first elected in 2019, and now have one year of city council service behind them.

In August of 2017, the Democratic Party caucused Sims into a the seat left vacant by Timothy Mayer’s resignation. So Sims now has three and a half years of experience serving on the council. Continue reading “New Bloomington city council president Jim Sims: “This is a transition of leadership, not a transfer of power.””

Monroe County adds $90K to CARES pass-through distribution, brings total to $460K

Monroe County has now passed through nearly half a million dollars to local businesses and government entities from its total $4.7 million CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act allocation.

At their Wednesday meeting, county commissioners approved another $90,516 in reimbursements, bringing the grand total to $459,901.

The county’s program started with the county government acting as a clearinghouse of sorts, by passing through to the state the claims submitted by local businesses and governmental units—like the library and townships—for non-payroll expenses related to COVID-19.

The state eventually asked the county to submit the county’s own expenses for public safety, which were enough to get reimbursement to the county of the whole $4.7 million. Continue reading “Monroe County adds $90K to CARES pass-through distribution, brings total to $460K”