Extension of governor’s health emergency means Monroe County, Bloomington local government meetings can stay electronic through June

On Friday, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb issued a new emergency health order that extends through June 30 the current one, which was set to expire at the end of May.

Image links to a copy of the May 28 order from Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

That means many local governing bodies in Monroe County and Bloomington will continue for the next month to hold their meetings on a video-conference platform, instead of in person.

That’s allowed, but not required, under the governor’s current emergency health order.

On Friday, president of the board of county commissioners Julie Thomas told The Square Beacon that the regular meetings of the board of commissioners would take place on Zoom through the end of June. But starting in July, meetings of the commissioners will be in-person, with an option for the public to attend on Zoom, Thomas added.

That means the June 2 meeting of the county commissioners will be held on Zoom.

Bloomington city council administrator Stephen Lucas responded to an emailed question about the council’s June 2 meeting, in light of Friday’s extension of the governor’s order, by writing, “I believe the council will continue to meet virtually for the duration of the public health emergency.”

Lucas added, “If [the council] decides to make an in-person option available before the end of the public health emergency, we’ll publicize that fact in the meeting notice and packet that gets sent out.” Continue reading “Extension of governor’s health emergency means Monroe County, Bloomington local government meetings can stay electronic through June”

Monroe County poised for return to in-person government meetings with option for remote participation

Rank-and-file members of the public will be able to participate remotely in future county board meetings, even after pandemic protocols are lifted, and when commissioners start holding in-person meetings.

That was a key takeaway from Wednesday’s Monroe County commissioners meeting.

The current emergency health order from Indiana governor Eric Holcomb, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to expire at the end of May. Local county officials are assuming the order won’t be renewed this time around, as it has been several times before.

The emergency order provided the legal basis for governing bodies, like the Monroe County board of commissioners, to meet with remote participation of members, using video conferencing options like Zoom.

That broad basis for remote participation will end when the governor’s order expires. All other things being equal, that would mean a return to the legal requirements of public meetings in pre-pandemic times, which include an in-person requirement for members of public bodies.

But under a state statute enacted by the state legislature during this year’s session, the members of a governing body can, in a more limited way, still participate in meetings from a distance, by using electronic platforms. [HEA 1437] Continue reading “Monroe County poised for return to in-person government meetings with option for remote participation”

Bloomington neighborhood grant approvals delayed to comply with Indiana’s Open Door Law

On the Bloomington redevelopment commission’s (RDC’s) Monday agenda was an item to approve $27,000 in grant awards to seven different neighborhoods.

The image  is from the header of the online application for this year’s neighborhood improvement grants.

The grants have been made annually since 1998, and can pay for a range of projects: neighborhood entrance signs and street sign toppers; restoration of historic sidewalks; playground equipment; public art installations; and landscaping, among other things.

But at Monday’s meeting, assistant city attorney Larry Allen told the RDC that the item had been pulled from the agenda for that day, after a question from The Square Beacon about compliance with Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL).

RDC is expected to have the recommendations from the neighborhood improvement grant council on its meeting agenda two weeks from now.

On April 19, the neighborhood improvement grant council met to hear pitches from eight different neighborhood groups. That meeting was properly noticed.

However, the grant council held a subsequent meeting, when the members deliberated on and decided their recommendations to the RDC. That meeting was not properly noticed under the ODL, according to Allen.

So the remedy will be to post proper notice, re-hold the meeting, and get the recommendations in front of the RDC in two weeks, Allen said. He said he’d confirmed that the delay would not have a negative impact on any of the proposed projects. “There was some built-in time anyway. And so this allows us just to follow the law like we should,” Allen said.

The recommendations made by the grant council at the un-noticed meeting were for awards to seven of the eight applicants. Continue reading “Bloomington neighborhood grant approvals delayed to comply with Indiana’s Open Door Law”

Analysis: Bloomington’s new redistricting advisory commission

Last Wednesday (Dec. 16), at its last regular meeting of the year, Bloomington’s city council approved the creation of a new redistricting commission that will in 2022 be responsible for making recommendations on boundaries for the six city council districts.

The idea of creating such a commission was uncontroversial. It was approved on a unanimous vote by the nine-member city council, which is made up of nine Democrats.

The new citizens advisory redistricting commission will also have nine members, but just three will be Democrats. In addition to the “delegation” of three Democratic Party affiliates, the ordinance also calls for a three-member Republican Party delegation and a three-member delegation of members who aren’t affiliated with either of the two major parties.

Each of the three delegations on the new commission has to include a full-time Indiana University student.

Council president Steve Volan wrote the ordinance. The slogan he gave in support of the basic concept of a redistricting commission was: “We shouldn’t be choosing our voters; they should be choosing their representatives.” Continue reading “Analysis: Bloomington’s new redistricting advisory commission”

Monroe County looking to rectify CVC’s violation of Open Door Law with meeting reenactment, possible new guidelines

Monroe County’s five-member convention and visitors commission (CVC) met on Wednesday Dec. 9 at noon.

The meeting was not accessible to the public as required under Indiana’s Open Door Law. That’s because the Zoom video conferencing link that was used to conduct the meeting had not been posted on Monroe County’s website, or anywhere else The Square Beacon could see.

According to Monroe County attorney Margie Rice, the approach will be next week to hold a properly noticed, publicly accessible meeting of the CVC to ratify the actions taken at the Wednesday meeting, as well as four other meetings held earlier this year.

The tentative date for the meeting to re-enact the CVC’s work for previous meetings is Dec. 18.

The purpose of the CVC as a public body under state statute is to promote the development and growth of the convention and visitor industry in the county using funds generated by the county’s 5-percent innkeeper’s tax.

Rice told The Square Beacon that when she reviewed the situation arising out of the Dec. 9 meeting, she concluded that four other CVC meetings held earlier this year, after the  COVID-19 pandemic hit,  had violated the Open Door Law in the same way. There was no way for the public to access those meetings because the Zoom link had not been posted. Continue reading “Monroe County looking to rectify CVC’s violation of Open Door Law with meeting reenactment, possible new guidelines”

Technology center application to feds for $9.4 million building gets more OKs from RDC, city council committee endorsement comes after grumbling

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A view from the west of Bloomington’s Trades District. The April 2020 image is from the Monroe County online GIS system.

On Monday night, Bloomington city council’s four-member sustainable development committee convened a meeting to consider signing a letter of support for an application by the city to the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA). The city looking to build a technology center in the Trades District, just north of city hall.

A couple of committee members balked at being asked to vote on the question, because they’d received the supporting written materials just three hours earlier. So the letter of support from the committee had to wait for approval until Tuesday afternoon when the committee resumed its recessed meeting from Monday, missing one of its members.

The Tuesday afternoon meeting lasted just six minutes, which included a reading of the letter aloud into the record. One missing instance of the word “of” was noted and corrected before the letter was approved.

The application had received an initial OK in early August from the city’s redevelopment commission (RDC).  The RDC is involved because it owns the land, and the project requires expenditure of about $2 million in tax increment finance (TIF) funds, money that the RDC oversees.

A couple hours before the city council’s committee met on Monday, the RDC amplified the application’s green light, given six weeks ago, with some additional endorsements. The five voting RDC members unanimously endorsed a feasibility study, a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS, pronounced /sεdz/), the funding match, and use of the land.

The RDC owns the real estate and would continue to own it, along with the building, after it is constructed. According to representatives of Axis Architecture + Interiors the construction could be completed, possibly by the end of 2022.

If the EDA were to approve the application, the $2 million in local funds would get a 20-80 federal match to pay for the construction of roughly $9.4-million, 3-story, 31,375 square foot building at Maker Way and Madison Street, north of city hall in downtown Bloomington. The estimated dollar figure includes architectural and engineering design fees, permits, inspections and connection fees.

The federal funds would be available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Continue reading “Technology center application to feds for $9.4 million building gets more OKs from RDC, city council committee endorsement comes after grumbling”

Bloomington city council votes to offer staff job to current deputy without a search

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City clerk Nicole Bolden, deputy administrator/attorney Stephen Lucas, and administrator/attorney Dan Sherman confer during a procedural debate by the city council in November last year. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

On Wednesday, Bloomington city councilmembers voted 9-0 to make an offer to Stephen Lucas to assume the role of council attorney/administrator on Aug. 1.

That’s the day after Dan Sherman retires from the job, after around 30 years of service. Lucas is Sherman’s current deputy.

Council president Steve Volan and and vice president Jim Sims were tapped by their council colleagues to sort out the details with Lucas, assuming he accepts the offer. When asked by councilmembers, Lucas had indicated his interest in the upcoming open position. Continue reading “Bloomington city council votes to offer staff job to current deputy without a search”

Bloomington city hall now officially closed due to COVID-19

In a press release issued late Tuesday afternoon, the city of Bloomington announced that city hall, on Morton Street in downtown, is now closed to visitors.

The move is part of several measures being taken on the local, state and national levels to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic virus.

Bloomington’s closure of city hall is based on Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s order, issued on Monday, that orders citizens to stay at home and that government activity be limited to “essential government functions.” Continue reading “Bloomington city hall now officially closed due to COVID-19”

Public’s work continues in Bloomington under COVID-19 protocols

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has caused cancellation of several public meetings, Bloomington’s city council now has an additional, special meeting on its calendar set for March 25th.

The extra meeting was added so that the council can act to approve the re-funding of some waterworks bonds. The utilities services board approved the bond re-funding this past week. And the council’s action will set up the city to save about $2.3 million in interest.

Even if that kind of public business continues to get done, it’s not business as usual.

The city council chambers have been configured to reflect the most common precaution against spreading the COVID-19 virus: social distancing. About 60 audience chairs have been stacked to the sides of the chambers, leaving four rows in the center with at least a chair-wide gap between each seat. Continue reading “Public’s work continues in Bloomington under COVID-19 protocols”

Opinion: It’s time to rethink closed door caucuses for Indiana city councils

caucus closed doorA 1980 article in the Valparaiso University Law Review states that the political party caucus exemption in the Open Door Law (ODL) here in the state of Indiana is “a major potential weakness in the act, and is virtually impossible to police.”

The same article mentions that there have been few problems with the caucus at the local level, either because it is not abused or else is used discretely enough to avoid criticism.

At lot has happened since 1980. But the law review article also mentions, as a point of curiosity, that up to that point there had been “few complaints by the press.”

Consider this column to be a complaint by the press. Continue reading “Opinion: It’s time to rethink closed door caucuses for Indiana city councils”