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”

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”

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”

Bloomington gets new city commission on public safety with 6–3 city council vote.

At its regular Wednesday meeting, on a  6–3 vote, Bloomington’s city council established a new commission that will be called the Community Advisory on Public Safety (CAPS) commission.

The new commission has 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.”

Dissenting were Jim Sims, Susan Sandberg, and Sue Sgambelluri.

The three are also members of the city council’s standing public safety committee, which reviewed the ordinance at two meetings—one in late October  and another one last week. Their lack of support for the new commission was conveyed by abstentions on the committee’s vote.

As members of the city council’s public safety standing committee, the three who dissented will now share in the committee’s job to make recommendations for appointments to the 11-member CAPS commission. Members are supposed to include Black, Latinx, other people of color, people with disabilities, people who are non-cisgender, and members of other marginalized groups.

Sims, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, told The Square Beacon, “I was in the minority on the vote. The majority wanted this, and it is now my responsibility to participate and make it work.” Continue reading “Bloomington gets new city commission on public safety with 6–3 city council vote.”

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”

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”

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”