Next week’s agenda: Will a majority of Bloomington city council support standing committees?

At a work session held Friday afternoon, city council president Steve Volan and other councilmembers heard again from city staff about Volan’s proposal to establish several four-member standing committees.

The proposal—which is a resolution, not a new ordinance—will appear on the council’s agenda next week (Feb. 19) for a third time. It was first heard on Jan. 8, postponed until Jan. 29, then put off again until next week.

The smaller standing committees would replace the “committee of the whole” in the regular legislative process.

Under Volan’s proposal, the standing committees would also play an oversight role for departments in the administration.

First introduced on Jan. 8, Volan’s initial proposal met with resistance from city department heads. Volan has since clarified that he means “oversight” in the sense of “inspect or examine.” Volan says the standing committees are not meant to exercise oversight in the sense of supervisory authority.

Volan’s proposal has also met with some opposition among the same councilmembers that voted 9–0 on Jan. 8—their first public meeting of the year—to put him in the president’s chair. If the council gives the standing committee resolution a final vote next Wednesday, the tally could be a 5–4 or 4–5 split.

One reason councilmembers have given for not wanting to establish smaller committees is that they want to maintain participation of the full council during the each phase of the legislative process.

Even those councilmembers who support standing committees acknowledge that the standing committee structure itself won’t improve efficiency. Matt Flaherty said on Friday that improvements in efficiency would require a change in culture.

Volan’s current proposal would create the following committees, adding to the existing land use committee: administration; community affairs; housing; public safety; social services; sustainability, climate action and resilience; transportation; and utilities and sanitation.

At Friday’s work session, the council’s vice president, Jim Sims, stated that he was not in support of the standing committee proposal. Responding to one of the touted benefits of standing committees—the chance for councilmembers to specialize—Sims says he already has that opportunity with his ex officio board and commission appointments.

For example, Sims serves on the utilities service board. There are a dozen and a half such boards and commissions that have ex officio city council appointments. Sims added, “If [standing committees are] adopted, my role as elected official is to make it work as well as it can.”

Also at Friday’s work session, councilmember Ron Smith said he is leaning against the standing committee proposal.

That could bring the tally opposing standing committees to at least four. At previous meetings, Susan Sandberg and Dave Rollo have both indicated publicly their opposition to standing committees. Councilmembers who have expressed support for creating more standing committees are Volan, Flaherty, Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Kate Rosenbarger.

More circumspect about how she’s leaning has been councilmember Sue Sgambelluri. At the council’s Jan. 8 meeting, she encouraged thinking about the ways the council would measure success for the proposal, if it were implemented.

The four clear supporters of standing committees make up the council’s land use committee, the one existing standing committee that has factored into the regular legislative process for the last two years. It’s the land use committee, instead of the council’s committee of the whole, that handles planned unit developments (PUDs).

The land use committee’s two-year track record is seen by Volan as positive, because it has reduced the clock time for individual meetings. The administration is less sanguine about the land use committee. Deputy mayor Mick Renneisen said at Friday’s work session that the effect of the land use committee has been to convince developers that it’s not necessary to negotiate with the plan commission or the staff, because a re-negotiation will have to be undertaken with the city council anyway.

A PUD that is currently under review by the city council is proposed by Trinitas for the area southeast of the SR 45/46 interchange. The Trinitas PUD might illustrate the benefit Volan has claimed for using the four-member land use committee, instead of the committee of the whole. The land use committee extends the calendar time for a decision, but reduces the clock time for any individual meeting.

The Trinitas PUD was first read at the council’s Feb. 5 meeting and referred to the land use committee. The committee met on Feb. 12 and concluded another committee meeting was needed. So the Trinitas PUD will get a second committee hearing on Feb. 26.

A second meeting of a standing committee on a given topic is possible, because under city code a standing committee does not owe a report back to the council until the second regular council meeting after which a matter was referred to it. That gives a standing committee the chance to schedule a second committee meeting on a topic, if the majority think a proposal needs more work.

In contrast, the committee of the whole owes its report at the very next meeting of the council, which can lead to a single, long committee-of-the-whole meeting.

Volan also points to the use of standing committees by other city councils in Indiana as one of his arguments for them.

Director of planning and transportation, Terri Porter, said at Friday’s work session she’d called a couple of other cities and confirmed that they use standing committees, but that they’re not constrained to meet on just one day of the week like Bloomington’s are.

Under city code, Bloomington’s city council standing committees have to meet on Wednesday evenings, and sequentially, so that anyone can attend any committee meeting. Volan says that this is a benefit, because it makes it possible for staff to plan their evenings better, compared to a single committee-of-the-whole meeting.

Porter said that even if a committee meeting is certain to start at 9 p.m. that’s still a late evening. At one point during Friday’s work session, Volan suggested that for regular council meetings it would possible to flag agenda items with clock times, which would enforce better discipline and also allow staff to know with more certainty when they need to appear at a meeting.

The fact that city code already provides for standing committees is also something that Volan points to as an argument that the council should use them. They’re also a part of the council’s history, something Volan mentioned at Friday’s work session.

In 1968 at its first meeting of the year, the council established the following committees: finance; utilities and properties; public safety and traffic planning; planning, zoning, and land use; university and governmental affairs; community research and development, civic affairs; and rules, ordinances and resolutions.

Glossing over some of the post-1968 history of standing committees, in 1983 the council voted to abolish all of its standing committees.  In the last decade, the city council has considered but never adopted the kind of standing committees that Volan is now seeking to establish. A standing committee proposal in 2012 failed on a 3–4–1 vote, with Volan, Rollo, and former councilmember Andy Ruff voting in favor.

The controversy that has been sparked this time around has already improved the way the council does business, Volan said on Friday. As one example, Volan described a new habit that land use committee members have agreed to adopt: Submitting written questions to staff before their first meeting on a proposal.

Corporation counsel Philippa Guthrie said at Friday’s work session that she’d served on boards where the approach Volan is advocating works. The “nitty gritty” work is left to a smaller committee, but when it comes back to the full board, there’s not an additional meeting where everything rehashed. Guthrie expressed some concern about the council’s ability to implement that approach. The re-hashing by non-committee members of the committee’s work—because non-committee members are also interested in the topic—is something that would work against efficiency, Guthrie said.

Renneisen and the city’s director of public engagement, Mary Catherine Carmichael, both told Volan at Friday’s work session that Volan’s initial approach had not adequately included relevant stakeholders. Renneisen highlighted the public—in addition to councilmembers and staff—as people who are affected by decisions about standing committees.

A device that could help shorten council meetings, even if additional standing committees are not established, is a council chambers timer for speaking turns. Volan brought up the topic during the Friday work session. Renneisen appeared supportive of getting the idea implemented. Some back-and-forth ensued between Renneisen and Volan over following protocols for making requests that involve un-budgeted expenditures.

Memos and documents since the standing committee proposal was introduced on Jan. 8 include: