Opinion: It would be great if Bloomington’s government followed its own laws

This coming week offers a great chance to learn how Bloomington’s city government works. From Monday through Thursday, the city council will hold hearings on the mayor’s proposed budget for 2021.

cropped what I did on my summer vacation
Image links to Bloomington’s body of local law in Municode.

Every department begins its presentation by addressing the question: Why do we even exist?

Everyone in the city of Bloomington should try to tune in for at least part of this weeklong civic event.

Parents could use it as a reward for finishing homework on time: If you finish these math problems, I will let you watch the budget hearings.

Some Bloomington citizens might wonder about the start time for the budget hearings. Each night’s hearing starts a half hour earlier than for a regular city council meeting—6 p.m. instead of the usual 6:30 p.m.

That’s possible, because budget hearings aren’t “regular meetings” of the city council, which are prescribed to start at 6:30 p.m. under Bloomington law. The regular meeting start time was changed from 7:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. by enactment of an ordinance in late 2016.

Other Bloomington citizens might not wonder so much about the clock time as about the time of year for the budget hearings. Why the third week in August? Why not earlier, say in the third week of July?

It turns out that once upon a time Bloomington’s budget hearings were held in July. But they were re-scheduled to August starting in 2013. A new city controller had just taken the position a couple months earlier, and there was some interest in giving the person some time to acclimate. Also, the thinking was that the extra time could allow for additional data to be reported from the state, so that estimates might be more precise.

So the council voted on July 3, 2013 to shift the budget hearings from July to August that year.

Another step taken as a part of that 2013 vote was to change the council’s summer recess from August to July.

That step flouted Bloomington’s local law, which says the council’s annual summer recess comes in August.

And every year for the last seven years, the city council has followed the precedent set in 2013 by adopting a schedule that flouts the local law on summer recess.

The budget hearings look like they’ve all been properly noticed under Indiana’s Open Door Law, so the budget hearings don’t count as a statutory violation.

But what does it mean for someone who relies on Bloomington’s local law to predict when the city council will be in session? That person will be surprised to learn that any council activity is scheduled for next week.

It would be straightforward to change the local law so that current city council custom complies with it. There are a few other local laws that might fit the same description.

For example, under local law, there’s a requirement that a fiscal impact statement accompany any legislation considered by the city council. That law looks like it’s routinely flouted.

A third law that looks like it’s ignored by Bloomington’s local government requires that for any vacancy on a board or commission, a synopsis of duties has to be written up, including an estimate of the time that it takes a member to complete those duties. The synopsis is supposed to be sent to local media.

Summer Recess

What does Bloomington’s local law say about summer recess?

2.04.050 – Regular meetings.

(e) The council shall go into recess upon adjournment of the first regular session in August and reconvene on the first Wednesday in September. No legislation shall be heard for first reading at the August meeting.

Last week, the council held its first regular session in August. Based on local law, it’s reasonable to expect that the council is in recess now, and won’t come out of recess until Sept. 2.

Do Bloomington city councilmembers know about this local law that applies to the way they conduct business?

They should, because each year for the last seven years, they’ve adopted a schedule for the next year that includes a “summer recess” but adds a strange footnote: “By approving this Annual Schedule, the Council will be starting and ending the Summer Recess earlier than set forth in the BMC [Bloomington Municipal Code].”

Apparently the legal advice the council has been receiving for the last seven years has been something like: It’s OK not to follow the local law that applies to your meeting schedule, as long as you take a majority vote on the adopted schedule.

The first time it happened was July 3, 2013, after the schedule had been set the previous year, in accordance with the local law on the council’s recess. The council took a vote at the July 3 meeting to push the hearings to August that year.

The reason was to allow for more accurate numbers from the state’s department of local finance, and to allow Sue West, the new controller (started in May), more time to get a handle on things.

At that meeting in July 2013, no councilmember asked how their action squared up with local law.

It would be simple enough for the council to revise the local law on the city council’s summer recess. That would follow the example of the council in 2016, when it changed the local law on clock times for regular meetings.

But it’s not clear if writing the timing of a city council’s summer recess into local law serves any useful purpose. Why debate the wording and the timing of the local law on regulating city council recess?

It probably makes more sense to just strike the section on council recess (including the winter recess) from local law and let the council’s adoption of its calendar each year stand for itself.

In any case, would be great if no one needed to ask: Why is the city council meeting during a period when the local law says they’re supposed to be in recess?

Fiscal Impact Statement

At the city council’s meeting last week, The Square Beacon asked during public commentary how to get a copy of the fiscal impact statement that’s required under local law to accompany the $2 million appropriation ordinance that was on the council’s agenda.

2.04.290 – Ordinances and resolutions—Fiscal impact statement required.

(a) Any legislation that makes an appropriation or has a major impact on existing city appropriations, fiscal liability, or revenues shall be accompanied by a fiscal impact statement. The statement shall describe the effect of the legislation on the financial condition of the city government and shall become a part of the official record of the legislation.

(b) The fiscal impact statement shall be submitted on a form provided by the council staff and shall set forth in as much detail as possible all fiscal data relevant to the legislation, including the effect on the costs and revenues of city government, the funds affected, and factors which could lead to significant additional expenditures in the future.

(c) The fiscal impact statement shall be prepared by the city agency submitting the legislation and shall carry the signature of the responsible city official. If the legislation directly affects city funds, the controller shall complete that part of the statement dealing with information on the funds affected by the legislation. The council staff may edit the statement to clarify information and ensure accuracy and completeness.

(d) The city agency submitting the legislation shall be responsible for determining whether the legislation will have a major impact on the city’s financial condition. If the agency determines that the legislation will not have a major fiscal impact, the agency shall submit a fiscal impact statement stating its conclusion and the basis for it.

(e) The council may adopt rules and regulations to effectuate the purposes of this section.

The answer to the question about the fiscal impact statement came from controller Jeff Underwood. He pointed to some basic numbers that the city is required to submit to the state when an appropriation ordinance is advertised. Underwood said those numbers are submitted to the state.

Comparing Underwood’s remarks to the local law’s description of the fiscal impact statement, it seems evident that the city is not following this requirement of local law.

After a couple of weeks, Bloomington has not yet produced any records in response to a request for a copy of fiscal impact statements from last year and the first half of this year. Nor has the city produced a document in response to a request for a copy of the form that the city council staff is supposed to have provided, so that fiscal impact statements can be submitted on it.

Responding to Underwood at Wednesday’s meeting, councilmembers Steve Volan and Isabel Piedmont-Smith indicated some concern about the lack of a fiscal impact statement. But neither withheld their vote for the appropriation.

It’s possible to make a case that the wording of the local law is vague. An especially vague phrase is: “as much detail as possible.” It’s always possible for a councilmember to ask for more detail than what was provided.

It’s also possible to make the case that the kind of required narrative description in the local law would amount to “busy work.”

Is it fair to say, based on the absence of fiscal impact statements, that the Bloomington city council has been voting on legislation without understanding its fiscal impact? Of course not.

Some of the information described in the local law is typically provided in the staff memos that is attached to any legislation. The absence of a form accompanying the legislation, bearing the title “Fiscal Impact Statement,” doesn’t necessarily mean that relevant fiscal information is absent from the meeting information packets.

Should the city council just scrap the local law on fiscal impact statements? Here it probably makes sense to revise it to ensure that it does not create an additional burden on staff, but provides relevant information in a standard format, which would promote clarity.

Every piece of legislation that moves through the state legislature has a fiscal impact statement. So the idea of such a statement seems sound in principle.

The city council could choose to enact an ordinance to remove from local law the requirement of fiscal impact statements, or to revise that local law in some way.

In the meantime, it would be great if the council insisted that fiscal impact statements be provided as required by law.

Board and Commission: Vacancy—Synopsis required

A vacancy on the city plan commission from the start of the year has been in the news in the last couple of months. The way the vacancy was supposed to be filled is now subject of a lawsuit.

Both people who have a claim to the seat are Republicans—Andrew Guenther and Chris Cockerham. It’s undisputed that the appointee cannot be a Democrat.

One angle to the story that hasn’t received a lot of attention is the number of candidates available to fill the position. Based on a records request, it looks like earlier in the year, the only non-Democrats with applications on file were Guenther and Nick Kappas. Kappas has no party affiliation and was the sitting plan commissioner who was not re-appointed.

There’s a requirement in local law that looks like it’s designed to help promote recruitment of candidates to boards and commissions.

2.02.010 – Vacancy—Synopsis required.
At least one month before the expiration of an appointment, and immediately on the vacancy’s occurrence in the case of an unexpected vacancy, the city board or commission shall write a synopsis regarding the vacancy, giving the name of the board or commission, the number of vacancies and any requirements for eligibility, the duties of the position, an estimate of the time required to fulfill the duties, and compensation.

2.02.020 – Synopsis—To be sent to local media.
The synopsis shall be sent to the mayor’s office in the case of a mayoral appointment and to the common council office in the case of a council appointment. Upon receiving the synopsis, those offices shall edit them as necessary. They shall then be sent, together with a statement on how to apply for the position, to the local media.

The city does provide a lot of the required information on its website. And the city does sent out a notice to media about vacancies, in general, on boards and commissions.

But based on a records request, the city does not follow the law that says a synopsis has to be written and sent to local media. A key piece of information that doesn’t look like it’s included on the city’s website is an estimate of the time required to fulfill the duties.

Ranking high on the list of concerns that a candidate for a board or commission might have would probably be the amount of time that such service would require. Unlike the description of duties, which are in many cases prescribed by law and don’t ever change, the time commitment could vary over the years.

The local law on synopses for boards and commission seems like it might be ripe for some kind of revision. It’s not clear what counts as “local media,” for example.

As a start, it would be great if boards and commissions could start estimating the time required to fulfill their duties and forwarding that information to the mayor’s office. It would probably help aid in recruitment for boards and commissions.

Next Steps

If the city council expects residents to follow the laws they enact, then the city council should expect itself and other Bloomington city officials to follow applicable laws.

The law on the council’s summer recess seems like a good candidate for outright repeal.

The other two laws, if they’re revised and followed, would probably make Bloomington a better place to live.

If every piece of legislation has a fiscal impact statement, with all the pertinent information laid out in standard format, that will make the city legislature’s work easier to understand.

If every time there’s a vacancy on a board or commission, the city were to issue a separate press release about it, that might help stir up more interest and awareness of the opportunities to serve.

Until they’re revised or repealed, these laws should be followed.

4 thoughts on “Opinion: It would be great if Bloomington’s government followed its own laws

  1. The Clerk’s office used to ALWAYS publicize vacancies for council appointments. Notices went to media outlets and community organizations

  2. The council really doesn’t need an ordinance to take a recess. I believe state statute says at least one meeting a month which happened.

  3. “Parents could use it as a reward for finishing homework on time: If you finish these math problems, I will let you watch the budget hearings.” Hilarious!

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