Bloomington city council committee sets group interviews for two public bus board appointments, excludes applicant who’s currently suing the city

Looking southeast at the corner of Walnut and 4th streets in downtown Bloomington at Bloomington Transit’s downtown transit center, on Nov. 18, 2020. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

Two seats on the five-member board of the Bloomington Transit board of directors have been listed as vacant on the city’s board and commission website since Aug. 1.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the city council’s four-member standing committee on transportation, they decided to use a couple of group interviews to consider just seven of eight applicants for the two vacant BT board positions.

Not in the mix for the committee’s group interviews will be Republican Andrew Guenther, who ran for the District 2 city council seat in 2019 that was won by Democrat Sue Sgambelluri.

Committee member Isabel Piedmont-Smith objected to the inclusion of Guenther, because he is currently a party to a lawsuit against the city of Bloomington over his appointment to a plan commission seat.

Supporting Piedmont-Smith’s position were the three other members of the committee: Steve Volan, Ron Smith, and chair Kate Rosenbarger.

The committee will make a recommendation to the city council, which will make a final decision. The city council appoints three of the five seats. The mayor appoints the other two.

The two incumbents for the seats on the BT board now listed as vacant are Nancy Obermeyer and Alex Cartwright. They will be part of the set of seven who are being invited to sign up for slots for the group interviews. At the same time the transportation committee met on Tuesday, Obermeyer and Cartwright were handling the business of the board at its regular monthly meeting.

Under the state statute on public transportation corporations, the BT board is required to be balanced for affiliation with political parties.

Obermeyer is a Democrat and Cartwright is a Republican, assuming that this June they both participated in the same party’s primary as in 2019. Participation in the most recent primary of a party is one way the state statute defines party affiliation. Continue reading “Bloomington city council committee sets group interviews for two public bus board appointments, excludes applicant who’s currently suing the city”

Bloomington public buses continue to roll at 21-percent ridership under COVID-19 conditions, board OKs deal with Trinitas development

At its regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, the board of Bloomington Transit handled routine business, like receiving a financial report from its controller.

The five-member group also handled another item that has become routine business for the board: an extension of its COVID-19 protocols for another month—through Dec. 15.

The board also approved a deal with Trinitas Ventures, the developer of a roughly 1,000-bedroom project oriented in large part towards students, to provide transit service to the West 17th and Arlington Road area on the west side of town.

The deal with Trinitas was a requirement for the city council’s approval of the zoning for the project. The first year of service will cost $359,000. Construction on that project is expected to start as soon as the real estate deal closes, which is early December, based on remarks from Jeff Kanable of Trinitas, made to the BT board at Tuesday’s meeting.

The board also approved its Federal Transit Administration safety plan on just a 3–2 vote, with dissent from Alex Cartwright and James McLary. The plan did not appear to be controversial, but Cartwright and McLary wanted better clarity about how the definition of “safety event” that’s used by the feds squares up with BT’s statistics.

In another piece of business handled on Tuesday, the BT board approved an extension with the company that sells advertising on its bus wraps. BT splits the revenue 50-50 with Mesmerize, formerly Clean Zone Marketing. That stands at about $175,000 annually, according to BT general manager Lew May at the meeting. That’s about a six-fold increase since 2015, when BT started doing business with Mesmerize, he said.

The extension of COVID-19 protocols for BT means continued fare-free boarding for all passengers and a closure of the indoor passenger waiting area of the downtown transit center. The Grimes Lanes administration building will also remain closed to the public. Designated administrative management and employees will continue to work remotely. Continue reading “Bloomington public buses continue to roll at 21-percent ridership under COVID-19 conditions, board OKs deal with Trinitas development”

Updated: COVID-19 reduces by 4 (was 2) already short Bloomington dispatch staff, police chief says adequate resources still available

[Updated 2:30 p.m Nov. 17, 2020: Shortly after this piece was published on Tuesday afternoon, the city of Bloomington announced that two additional dispatchers, for a total of four, have been diagnosed with COVID-19.]

On Monday, the city of Bloomington reported three additional employees had been added to the tally of city workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic hit Monroe County, bringing the total to 20.

Dispatcher attrition/retention. Rows correspond to employees in Bloomington’s police department who are dispatchers (telecommunicators) including supervisors and managers. Columns correspond to payroll distributions starting in January 2020, and ending in early November, according to the city’s online financial system. Cells shaded green are those containing any payments.

Two of them are dispatchers who answer 911 calls at the central emergency dispatch center that serves the area both inside and outside the city.

According to Monday’s press release, one dispatcher was tested last Friday (Nov. 13) after being in quarantine for five days after first showing symptoms. Close work contacts of that employee have been alerted, according to the release.

The other dispatcher was tested Wednesday (Nov. 11) and was quarantining since first having symptoms the day before. No close work contacts were identified for that employee, according to the release.

In light of the ongoing challenge to fill open positions at the dispatch center, which is already understaffed, The Square Beacon asked Bloomington police chief Mike Diekhoff how the department will approach covering for the two sick dispatchers.

Diekhoff said the department will still be able to maintain adequate coverage of the center.

Part of the strategy that could be used is a contingency plan involving Indiana University’s police department, which has its own dispatch center, Diekhoff said. A combination of moving staff from one dispatch center to the other, and simply transferring phone lines, is part of the contingency plans that have been in place for years, he said.

As an example of a partial implementation of that contingency, Diekhoff gave the temporary relocation of dispatchers to IU dispatch while the central dispatch facility was being disinfected after the two dispatchers received their positive COVID-19 diagnoses.

Continue reading “Updated: COVID-19 reduces by 4 (was 2) already short Bloomington dispatch staff, police chief says adequate resources still available”

Bloomington redevelopment commission rounds out hospital site with $350K purchase at 2nd & Rogers

This aerial image of the parcel on the southeast corner of 2nd and Rogers streets, dated April 2020, is from the Pictometry module of Monroe County’s online property lookup system.

At its regular Monday meeting, Bloomington’s redevelopment commission (RDC) voted unanimously to buy a vacant lot at the southeast corner of Rogers and 2nd streets for not more than $350,000.

Economic and sustainable development director Alex Crowley told RDC members the lot was not owned by IU Health, and would not be a part of the $6.5 million deal to transfer the hospital site to the city of Bloomington in 2021. That’s when IU Health moves to its new facility on the SR 45/46 bypass.

The parcel’s owner since 1900 has been C & S, Inc. according to Monroe County’s online property records.

The idea, Crowley said, is to “round out” the block of land the city will be acquiring with the IU Health land deal.

That brings the total price tag for the RDC’s hospital redevelopment project to $13 million. Continue reading “Bloomington redevelopment commission rounds out hospital site with $350K purchase at 2nd & Rogers”

Vote to create new commission on public safety set for Wednesday meeting of Bloomington’s city council

On Wednesday (Nov. 18), Bloomington’s city council will be voting on the question of establishing a new 11-member commission with the name: Community Advisory on Public Safety (CAPS) Commission.

The new commission would have the goal to “increase the safety of all Bloomington community members, especially those often marginalized due to race, disability, gender, sexual identity, or sexual orientation.”

The idea for the commission grew out of a national conversation about different approaches to policing that emerged this last summer.

In May, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who pinned him down with a knee-on-neck hold, which was documented on video. That came after Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman was killed by Louisville police officers in March. They were serving a no-knock search warrant shortly after midnight.

Response to national events was localized over the summer in the form of demonstrations, public meetings, and scrutiny of local area law enforcement. Bloomington police department statistics on use of force and arrests show a disparate impact on the Black community.

Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, a co-sponsor of the ordinance that would establish the CAPS commission, said at a meeting of the council’s four-member public safety committee in late October: “We have heard from many constituents that members of our community do not feel safe. They’ve told us this in emails, conversations, petitions, and public meetings.”

Continue reading “Vote to create new commission on public safety set for Wednesday meeting of Bloomington’s city council”

A hen’s tooth grows in Bloomington: Court of appeals agrees to review ruling mid-trial in plan commission seat case

On Friday morning, a three-judge panel from the Indiana court of appeals decided unanimously that it would hear an appeal made in the middle of a trial about the rightful appointee to a Bloomington plan commission seat.

The case will decide who serves on Bloomington’s plan commission: Chris Cockerham or Andrew Guenther. Both are Republicans. Cockerham, the mayor’s pick, has been serving for a few months now and will continue to serve on the commission until the case is decided.

Friday’s ruling means the usual sequence of written legal memoranda submitted by the two sides can start. Now that it has permission to file its appeal, the city will do that, along with a brief in support. Guenther and GOP Monroe County chair William Ellis, who are represented by local Bloomington attorney Carl Lamb, will have a chance to file a brief responding to Bloomington’s arguments. Finally, Bloomington will get a chance to reply to the response.

Either side can ask for oral arguments to be heard. Whether oral arguments are heard is at the court’s discretion. The court can itself decide to hear oral arguments, even if neither side requests it.

Given the allowable timelines for each step in the rules of Indiana appellate procedure, it seems unlikely that a ruling will come on the appeal before year’s end. The lawsuit was filed in June of this year.

Each side filed a brief with the court of appeals arguing that the court should either accept the case, or not. [Bloomington’s memorandum in support] [Ellis and Guenther’s memorandum in opposition]

An initial ruling went against the city of Bloomington, when local judge Erik Allen, out of Greene County, denied Bloomington’s motion to dismiss the case. The case is being handled by Allen, a special judge, after Monroe County judges recused themselves. Continue reading “A hen’s tooth grows in Bloomington: Court of appeals agrees to review ruling mid-trial in plan commission seat case”

Bloomington city council set to OK new engineering department next week

On Thursday, the Bloomington city council’s four-member administration committee gave a favorable review to a proposed ordinance by mayor John Hamilton’s administration to establish a new engineering department, outside the current planning and transportation department.

At Thursday’s meeting, corporation counsel Philippa Guthrie called the need to establish a new department through an ordinance a “formality,” which councilmember Jim Sims said was “refreshing [for him] to hear.”

The requirement that the city council take legislative action to create a new department is required under state law. [36-4-9-4]

The creation of the department was anticipated as a part of the 2021 budget adopted by the city council in mid-October.

The proposal does not add new positions or change the physical location of any staff, but does put the city engineer, which is a mayoral appointment under state law, at the head of their own department.

The position of city engineer is currently vacant. Senior project engineer Neil Kopper currently serves as interim city engineer. The new configuration would give the engineer more direct access to the mayor and a bump in pay, compared to its current placement under the director of the department of planning and transportation.

Not a part of the proposed ordinance that the city council will vote on next Wednesday is a change to the name of the department that currently houses the engineer, which is planning and transportation.

When the administration’s intention to eliminate “transportation” from the department’s name, making it just the planning department, emerged at a budget meeting this fall, it rankled some councilmembers, in particular Steve Volan.

On Thursday, Volan said he supported the creation of an independent engineering department, and was glad no name change was a part of the proposal: “It serves everybody to make the engineer head of a separate department. So I’m very happy to support that. I’m also pleased to see that something that I expected to see is not here, which is that the name of the planning and transportation department would change.” Continue reading “Bloomington city council set to OK new engineering department next week”

Bloomington set to bang wobbles out of budget wheel, in year-end ritual

If the city’s annual budget starts out as a perfectly round plan at the beginning of the year, it gets a few dings as it rolls along through the months.

By Centrimaster – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Towards year’s end, adjustments always get made to the budget, in the form of an appropriation ordinance. Money gets shuffled amongst funds and in some cases draws on the general fund balance to square up the ledger.

As city controller Jeff Underwood described the process to the city council’s committee of the whole on Thursday night, “We come to you in the fall and…kind of ‘true up’, as I call it, the different departments and different funds that may need transfers or may need additional funds.”

At Thursday’s meeting, the appropriation ordinance, totaling about $1.5 million, got a favorable recommendation from the council’s committee of the whole, which sets the stage for a vote of approval by the full city council in December.

One of the bumps in the road this year was the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s online financial system shows $543,595 worth of expenses with “COVID” in the expense description.  That’s close to the $549,000 described by Underwood as expected to be reimbursed through the state’s and city’s federal COVID-19 relief assistance. Continue reading “Bloomington set to bang wobbles out of budget wheel, in year-end ritual”

Bloomington zoning map revision process headed towards up-down city council vote in first half of 2021

Public engagement for Bloomington’s zoning map revision process is underway, with three Zoom video-conference meetings now in the books and at least three more now listed on the city’s zoning map project page.

The image alternates between dark gray districts, which are currently zoned PUD, and the colors of the districts to which they’re proposed to be rezoned. The image links to the PUD story map created by the city’s planning staff.

Two meetings are scheduled that will each combine two controversial topics. The first topic is where to put the newly defined R4 district on the map. The second topic is possible changes to the text of the unified development ordinance (UDO), to allow for duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes in all the residential areas of the city.

The first of the R4-“plexes” meetings is set for Thursday this week, starting at 5:30 p.m. The project page also includes a link for a 9 a.m. Thursday “office hour” with a city planner, who will be available to take questions.

Where R4 (Residential Urban) districts are placed on the zoning map is controversial because R4 includes duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes as by-right, permitted uses, which some residents are opposed to allowing in areas that have up to now allowed only single-family houses.

Another way that “plexes” could be added to older neighborhoods is through a text amendment to the UDO that would change the allowed uses for R1 (Residential Large Lot), R2 (Residential Medium Lot), and R3 (Residential Small Lot) districts. Those districts would be changed to allow “plexes” as permitted or conditional uses.

One significant detail about the eventual process—which has emerged over the first set of meetings—involves the lack of flexibility that city councilmembers will have when the map revision reaches them for consideration next year.

Responding to a question to planning staff and the legal department from The Square Beacon, planning and transportation director Scott Robinson said that the city council will have just three options after it receives a recommended map from the plan commission: (1) adopt the proposal; (2) reject the proposal; (3) do nothing for 90 days. If the city council does nothing, the plan commission’s recommendation is enacted automatically.

That means the city council can’t amend the map, then adopt its amended map.

That’s different from changes to the text in the unified development ordinance. The city council could make amendments to the proposed changes to the text recommended by the plan commission, and adopt those changes as amended. Continue reading “Bloomington zoning map revision process headed towards up-down city council vote in first half of 2021”

Analysis by Bloomington resident: Sidewalk project funding not equitable, political bias a factor

A report released by Bloomington resident Mark Stosberg late Monday questions the way funding for construction of new sidewalks has been allocated in the city for the last 17 years.

White dots with lines indicate projects recommended for funding by Bloomington city council’s sidewalk committee over the last 17 years. The darker the blue shading, the higher income the area is, based on US Census data. The image links to Bloomington resident Mark Stosberg’s “Sidewalk Equity Audit”

The report concludes that the process a four-member city council sidewalk committee has used  to recommend funding has caused an inequitable distribution of limited resources.

From the executive summary of Stosberg’s report: “The audit found that the current politically-biased process resulted in skewing sidewalk projects towards neighborhoods that were wealthier, less dense and had lower pedestrian demand.”

To fund all the projects on last year’s potential project list would take around $17 million. Using just the roughly $330,000 a year that’s allocated to building new sidewalks with the city council’s program would mean a half-century wait until all those sidewalks are built.

City staff and councilmembers alike have over the last year talked about the need to find more money to pay for new sidewalk construction.

Based on Stosberg’s remarks at a July meeting of the city’s bicycle and pedestrian safety commission (BPSC), the audit helps make the point that if funding is limited, then it’s that much more important to make sure the resources are distributed equitably.

Stosberg is president of the BPSC.  The commission got a preview of a draft version of the report at its October meeting. Other members gave Stosberg some feedback, but the authorship of the report is Stosberg’s.

The idea that the current approach could be a “politically biased process” is conceivable, based on the fact that it’s a four-member city council committee that works closely with staff from different city departments to select the projects for funding recommendations.

Stosberg’s audit uses US Census data on income to identify “a concentration of wealthier census blocks in the southeast part of town.”

About those wealthier census blocks, Stosberg’s report says, “That’s also where the about half of sidewalk committee funded projects landed and significantly overlaps with city council District 4, which has been continuously represented on the sidewalk committee for 17 years.”

Dave Rollo, who represents District 4, has served on the city council since 2003.

Rollo was appointed again this year to the council’s sidewalk committee, along with Kate Rosenbarger (District 1), Ron Smith (District 3) and Jim Sims (at large). Sims is chair of the committee. This year is the first for Smith and Rosenbarger to serve on the committee, because it’s their first year of service on the city council. Continue reading “Analysis by Bloomington resident: Sidewalk project funding not equitable, political bias a factor”