Bloomington city council rules committee off to rough start

A meeting of the Bloomington city council rules committee on Monday evening was postponed to some other time, after less than 10 minutes of conversation.

The council’s administrator/attorney, Dan Sherman, questioned whether the meeting had been properly noticed, and that led to some sharp exchanges between him and City Clerk Nicole Bolden, an ex officio member of the committee.

When Bolden told Sherman, “…your behavior has been reprehensible, and incredibly rude and unprofessional,” councilmember Steve Volan, who was chairing the proceedings, said, “I think we should postpone this meeting.”

The rules committee has not existed for something like a decade, but was reconstituted by city council president Dave Rollo at the council’s June 12 meeting. Rollo named councilmembers Volan, Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Jim Sims to the committee and Bolden as an ex officio member.

One reason the council wants to have its rules committee start meeting is to look at issues like speaking time limits on councilmembers at meetings. At the council’s most recent meeting on July 31, councilmember Allison Chopra raised the issue as part of a general criticism about the length of meetings: “…the biggest part of it is we have no rules to regulate how long we speak. We have rules, we let the people of the public speak for three minutes at public comment. That’s necessary to keep a meeting orderly. We’ve got to do it for ourselves…”

A short while later at the July 31 meeting, Volan, who is the council’s parliamentarian, concurred with Chopra: “Yes, your humble parliamentarian would like to point out that I have been preaching time limits for many, many years and that I need the tools to do it.”

The Aug. 5 meeting was to be the committee’s first attempt to start reviewing a range of issues, beyond just speaking time limits for councilmembers.

Rules committee possible topics

Volan circulated a memo for Monday’s committee meeting, which he said was an attempt to describe the range of topics the committee could consider. It includes the possibility of time limits not just for public commenters, but also for presenters, councilmembers asking questions and councilmembers in “debate.”

The time limits come under the first major subheading in the memo about a “council policy manual,” which would address among other items: conduct of members with respect to communications, decorum at meetings, knowledge of Robert’s Rules, duties of the council leadership, documentation of meeting procedures (including time limits), the council’s personnel, and a council staff human resources policy.

Other major outline points of the memo are a cleanup of board and commission verbiage in the city code (like substitution of gender-neutral language), and the organization of standing committees.

The use of standing committees, consisting of a smaller subset of councilmembers, would supplant the council’s current practice of relying on its committee of the whole. The memo says that standing committees would: triage legislation without having the power to kill it; limit the time spent in meetings; allow councilmembers to specialize; and create a method of oversight for city departments. Standing committees would allow for the council to respond to emergent issues with the appropriate standing committee, according to Volan’s memo. Examples of such issues cited in the memo are the farmers market (2019), scooters (2018) and the armored truck purchase (2017).

Assigned its own outline point in Volan’s memo is the relationship between the city council and the clerk’s offices.

Included in that relationship is the one between Sherman, the council’s administrator/attorney, and Bolden, who is city clerk. The city clerk’s offices and the council staff office are combined into one suite at city hall. The clerk is an elected official with her own staff.

The outline point in Volan’s memo about the council-and-clerk relationship includes the following:

Duties of the clerk currently done by council staff

Agenda publication
Packet preparation
Notice posting

Was the rules committee meeting properly noticed?

The friction between Bolden and Sherman centered on the question of whether a notice of the meeting was posted in compliance with Indiana’s Open Door law. The law requires that meetings of “public agencies” be noticed “by posting a copy of the notice at the principal office of the public agency holding the meeting…”

The notice has to be posted at least 48 hours before the meeting takes place, not including weekend hours. For Monday’s meeting that meant the notice should have been posted by Thursday evening.

Bolden told Sherman that her staff member said he’d posted the notices.

Sherman said he looked for the postings in the usual locations at city hall on Thursday evening—he was there because of the public safety local income tax committee meeting. He didn’t see any postings: “Well, as your attorney, I can tell you I walked around, after the PS LIT meeting, which closed after 5:30, at a lot of those locations and I did not see a notice for the rules committee.”

Based on the conversation at Monday’s committee meeting, Sherman sent more than one email about the topic to Bolden and the other members of the committee. Sherman said he had not heard back from Bolden.

Bolden responded by saying, “That’s not true. I told you that on Friday morning when I saw you. …”

Referring to her Friday morning conversation with Sherman, Bolden indicated she’d told Sherman that her staff member had assured her that he’d posted the notices. About the emails that Sherman sent after their in-person conversation, Bolden said, “All the subsequent emails after we spoke were extraneous, we’d already discussed it, which is why you didn’t get a response to your…email on Friday.”

The source of the disagreement between Bolden and Sherman could be summarized in these three conversational turns:

BOLDEN: …functionally what you’re doing is accusing my staff member of lying.
SHERMAN: I’m stating the facts as I know them.
BOLDEN: And the facts as I know them is that he assured me that he had posted them.

The irritation between Bolden and Sherman was evident early in their interaction. When Volan asked if there were notices posted at the time of the meeting, Bolden told Volan that wasn’t the issue, saying, “The point that he’s [Sherman is] making is that, apparently…” Sherman interjected, saying: “I can make my own point, and that is that…according to Open Door, notice has to be posted at least 48 hours before the meeting occurs.”

When the back-and-forth between Sherman and Bolden escalated to the point where Volan said the discussion should take place outside the meeting, Bolden said: “I am absolutely done with it. This is officially notice, that I will be filing a complaint with HR about this behavior.”

Note: The rules committee meeting time and place was included in the council’s information packet for its Wednesday’s meeting, which was posted to the city’s website. That’s where The Beacon saw it, and on that basis attended the rules committee meeting. [Link to rough transcript of conversation at the rules committee.] [.mp3 file of meeting]