Bloomington city councilmember: It’s now time for standing committees, and time limits on speaking turns

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At its Friday, Jan. 3, 2020 work session,  Bloomington city councilmember Steve Volan introduces the specifics of one possible approach to establishing a slate of four-member standing committees, to which the city council could refer legislation. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

At a work session held on Friday, Bloomington city councilmember Steve Volan introduced a proposal he’s put on the agenda for the council’s first meeting of the year, on Wednesday, Jan. 8.

Volan’s resolution would use existing city code to establish several four-member standing committees, adding to the already-existing land use committee. The land use committee is the subset of councilmembers to which planned unit developments (PUDs) have been referred for the last couple years, after getting a first reading in front of the council.

Much of Friday’s discussion focused on the role of standing committees in the process of approving legislation. But Volan’s arguments for standing committees include the idea of better equipping the council, as the legislative branch, to carry out its defined role as a check on the executive.

The arguments also include the idea that by their nature, standing committees can on their own initiative hold fact-finding hearings on topics of emerging community interest, which are not the subject of legislation referred to the committee.

Time limits for councilmember speaking turns aren’t a part of Volan’s resolution, but they factor prominently in his 2020 Council Organizational Plan, which is included in the meeting packet. Under city code, time limits to structure debate can be imposed on a case-by-case basis, as they were during the unified development ordinance deliberations in late 2019.

Establishing standing committees, like several other similar city councils across Indiana have done, is a proposal that Volan said he’s pitched several times over the last decade. Now it’s time to give it a try, he said. This year marks the the start of Volan’s fifth term, his 17th year, of service on the city council.

The city council’s custom of referring matters to a committee is reminiscent of the General Assembly’s legislative process. But as Volan pointed out during Friday’s work session, the city council’s committee process is different from the state legislature’s in a key way: A city council committee can’t kill legislation.

Volan’s standing committee proposal got a negative reaction on Friday from returning city councilmember Susan Sandberg, based on the relative success of the land use committee. That’s the standing committee to which the council has referred development matters for the last couple years.

Sandberg called the proposal “premature” without some “hard data” about how the land use committee had impacted the planning staff, the public and the developers. The feedback she’s heard on the land use committee from people who have approached her has not been positive, she said. Volan responded by saying it’s a matter of who approaches whom—the feedback he’s heard has been positive.

Councilmember Jim Sims expressed some caution, asking if there were not some way to roll out the proposal at first on a limited basis.

The possibly limited use of standing committees, even if they are established and populated, was drawn out by councilmember Matt Flaherty. He noted that a majority of city council members could oppose a motion to refer piece of legislation to a standing committee, and instead vote to refer the legislation to the committee of the whole. “There are potential advantages to this,” Flaherty said, adding, “Without trying it, we won’t know.”

The specific standing committee proposal the council will consider on Wednesday isn’t necessarily finalized. A draft resolution in the meeting packet would add seven four-member city council committees to the existing one on land use: Administration, Public Safety, Community Affairs, Sustainability, Housing, Transportation, and Utilities and Sanitation.

At first glance, it would be an additional challenge for the public to track the possible meetings of seven additional city council committees. But standing committees as a concept already exist under the local ordinance that establishes how the city council functions.  That means the meetings of the new committees  would have to conform to some basic requirements.

For one thing, the standing committee meetings would have to be scheduled for the second or fourth Wednesday of the month. (Regular meetings are scheduled for the first and third Wednesdays of the month.)

More than one standing committee meeting could be scheduled for the same night. Even if the committees have no members in common, and from that practical consideration could be scheduled at the same time, they could not be scheduled simultaneously under local law.

The explicit logic behind the local code is not necessarily to protect the public’s interest in attending all meetings, but it has that effect: “[T]he committees shall not be scheduled at the same time, so that any councilmembers may attend any meeting.”

The fact that Wednesday night standing committee meetings would have to be scheduled one after the other means that their start and stop times would have to be set. Volan sees a benefit in three standing committee meetings, scheduled one after the other at specific times, compared to a committee-of-the-whole meeting that covers three separate agenda points. What’s the benefit? The standing committee meeting schedule would let the public and staff better predict when topics are going to be considered, which means their own time could be planned better.

Another benefit Volan sees to handling a matter with a standing committee, instead of the committee of the whole, stems from the different reporting requirements for the two kinds of committee. Current local code says a standing committee has to report “not later than the second regular session after being referred to the committee.”

That means if a matter is referred to a standing committee at a regular council meeting on the first Wednesday of the month, a standing committee could meet twice before reporting a recommendation to the full council at the first Wednesday the following month.

Meeting twice on a matter is not an option for the committee of the whole, because that committee exists for just the time that’s required to consider a matter that has been referred to it. And the committee of the whole is required to report a recommendation to the full council at the conclusion of its meeting: “When the committee of the whole rises … chairperson of the committee shall report its recommendations to the council.”

Volan sees the option to spread committee deliberations over at least two meetings as an advantage, because it means shorter meetings. It spreads out the clock time for discussing an issue across more days.

In contrast, Volan characterized the committee-of-the-whole process as putting the council on a two-week “forced march” to a second reading on legislation. According to Volan, that has historically led to long meetings for the committee of the whole, because it has not been an option to continue the issue at a second meeting on the topic.

The first council meeting of the year is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 8 in city council chambers.