Even for a publication like The B Square Beacon, which specializes in local government coverage, the dominant story of 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic changed the way local government meetings are run, in some ways for the better.
But COVID-19 was not the only important story of 2020.
Here’s an incomplete roundup of 2020’s significant local stories, with some notes on how they might continue in 2021.
Monroe County’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 came on March 21. As of Dec. 29, Monroe County had seen nearly 8,000 confirmed cases and 93 deaths due to the virus.
In 2021, attention will likely shift from counts of cases, deaths and use of hospital resources to the number of people who have been vaccinated.
Based on pre-filed legislation, pandemic-related action by the state legislature in early 2021 could mean an end to Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s executive order declaring a health emergency [CR 2], and a 14-day limit to the duration of COVID-19 health orders that are issued by a county health officer [SB 48]. Another bill would allow pharmacists or pharmacy technicians to administer the COVID-19 vaccine [SB 47].
The emergency order from Holcomb made it possible for public bodies to meet by video conference. The resulting improvement in public access has been recognized on several occasions.
In the waning weeks of 2020, improved access for city of Bloomington meetings has included the real-time closed captioning and transcription on the Zoom platform. Whether that kind of improved access will continue after the transition back in-person meetings will be a story to follow in 2021.
A national reckoning with the disparate impact of policing on people of color was spurred by the May 25 killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man. Locally, demonstrations by a couple hundred people on the downtown courthouse square continued every night for about two weeks. The peak of demonstration activity came with the “Enough is Enough” march and rally on June 5. It drew several thousand people.
In 2021, Bloomington’s city council is looking to appoint members to a newly established Community Advisory on Public Safety (CAPS) commission. The CAPS commission is meant to “increase the safety of all Bloomington community members, especially those often marginalized due to race, disability, gender, sexual identity, or sexual orientation.” County commissioners are supposed to receive anti-racism training provided by the local Black Lives Matter group.
In 2021, the state legislature could consider a law that appears to be a response to demonstrations in Indianapolis. The senate bill [SB 34], which has been pre-filed for the 2021 state legislative session, provides enhanced penalties for rioting, obstruction of traffic, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.
A possible legislative response to calls to “defund the police” is a pre-filed bill that would limit the ability of a local government to reduce public safety budgets. [SB 42]
In the July 4 Lake Monroe case that involved the pinning of Bloomington resident Vauhxx Booker against a tree, a pre-trial conference is set in mid-March for both defendants, Sean Purdy and Jerry Cox. Booker described the event as an attempted lynching. The trials are now in the hands of a special prosecutor, Sonia Leerkamp out of Hamilton County, and a special judge out of Johnson County, Lance Hamner.
In early 2021, a report is expected to be submitted by the consultant hired to do a review of the Monroe County’s criminal justice system.
Funding for climate action, economic recovery
In September, Bloomington’s city council voted down a request from mayor John Hamilton to increase the countywide local income tax (LIT) to fund various initiatives under the banner of Hamilton’s Recover Forward initiative.
A common criticism of the proposed LIT increase was a lack of clear focus for the initiatives to be funded. The proposal had started the year as a climate action plan. Another criticism was the failure to include public transportation as a significant part of the mix.
How the story continues in 2021 will depend on the way Bloomington and Monroe County elected officials approach the issue. Community discussion topics could include the kinds of projects that need to be prioritized, calculations of costs for those projects, and a choice of funding mechanism.
A possible guide to the kind projects to be funded will be Bloomington’s climate action plan, which is still in draft form.
The climate action plan includes some recommendations that won’t require any additional revenue, but will require legislative action by Bloomington’s city council. Recommended new laws in the draft climate action plan include a revision to the unified development ordinance (UDO) to eliminate minimum parking requirements.
Ways to raise revenue include a LIT increase, or a general obligation bond. A GO bond would mean a property tax increase.
The LIT increase proposed by Hamilton was in the economic development category. But another possibility is to increase the general LIT, which would distribute the additional revenue to more taxing jurisdictions than just the city and county governments.
Depending on revenue forecasts for 2022 and 2023, a general LIT increase, instead of an economic development LIT increase, might find some traction.
Economic recovery stories for 2021 will likely include food and beverage tax revenues, innkeeper’s tax revenues and how they’ll affect the planned Monroe County convention center expansion. In early March 2020, the expansion project had hit another rough patch just before the pandemic. City and county elected officials continued to wrangle with the details of the governance structure for the convention center project. The project was paused for the rest of 2020.
Another economic recovery story to watch in 2021 is Bloomington’s application to the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) for a grant to fund a technology center in the Trades District. Director of economic and sustainable development Alex Crowley told The Square Beacon that in mid-December, the EDA had responded with a request that Bloomington provide some additional information and clarification on the city’s application.
Zoning map revisions, and more?
Even if Bloomington’s city council does not pursue the draft climate action plan’s suggested revisions to the UDO, a recommendation from the plan commission for a new zoning map will land on the council’s agenda sometime in the first half of 2021.
That’s because a significant story from late 2020 was the start of the public engagement process for changes to the city’s zoning map.
The city’s plan commission is expected to take up the issue of the zoning map revisions in the second half of January. That will likely put it on the city council’s plate sometime mid-spring.
Along with the zoning map revision, planning staff are proposing some UDO text changes that would revisit the controversial question of duplexes, triplexes and quad-plexes in zoning districts where plexes are not allowed.
Text changes and map revisions are handled differently. Plan commission recommendations on text changes can be amended and adopted in that amended form by the city council. Plan commission recommendations on map revisions can get only an up-or-down vote by the city council. A part of the map revision that’s controversial is the proposal to place R4 districts, which allow plexes, in areas where plexes are not currently allowed.
Board and commission appointments
The partisan balanced nine-member plan commission that will consider the zoning map revisions in January will include commercial real estate broker Chris Cockerham, a Republican. He was Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s choice for the seat.
But that appointment is disputed. The lawsuit over the appointment was a significant story in 2020 that will continue into 2021. In spring of 2020, Republican Party county chair William Ellis claimed a statutory right to make the appointment, because the appointing authority (the mayor) had not filled the vacancy within 90 days. The case is currently in front of the court of appeals, after an initial ruling went against the city of Bloomington.
The court of appeals has agreed to an expedited process, by shortening some filing deadlines from 30 days to 15 days.
For a different board, Ellis’s early December attempt to invoke his statutory authority to make an appointment was already successful. The set of facts for the Bloomington Transit board appointment made the application of the statute more straightforward than it was for the plan commission. Doug Horn now sits on the BT board, appointed by Ellis, because the Bloomington city council did not make the appointment in a timely way.
Not partisan balanced is the city’s parking commission. But an appointment to that commission became controversial within a day of the mayor making it in early December, when Facebook posts by the appointee were deemed to be “not a reflection of the city that we are.”
Parking was a big story in 2020 because two new parking garages made significant progress in their construction, and both are slated to open in 2021.
The garage in the Trades District is supposed to open in late March 2021. The garage on Fourth Street is not due to finish construction until around August 2021.
Construction on the Fourth Street garage did not start as soon as it might have, because Bloomington attempted to use eminent domain to acquire additional land for the garage. Early in 2020, the city lost the case in the Monroe County circuit court, and in March wound up withdrawing its appeal.
Supreme Court ruling on annexation law
If the eminent domain lawsuit over the parking garage counted as a legal defeat for Hamilton’s administration, it was counterbalanced by a legal win that was three years in the making.
In late 2020, Indiana’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bloomington, saying that the 2017 law suspending Bloomington’s in-progress annexation process was unconstitutional.
It’s not yet clear if or how Bloomington might approach attempted annexations in 2021. The legal landscape for annexations has changed since 2017. The legislature changed the law in a way that invalidates many remonstrance waivers. Another change to state law maintains an annexed area’s tax levy for any fire protection district of which it is a part.
The inside-outside question of city boundaries will likely come up in 2021, even if annexation is not a story. City of Bloomington utilities will present a rate increase proposal to the city council for its approval, probably in the first three months of the year. Different rates can apply for customers inside and outside the city limits.