Bloomington city council strips its sidewalk committee of duties

After about 2 hours and 45 minutes of deliberations on Wednesday night, Bloomington’s city council eliminated two of its 11 committees.

White dots with lines indicate projects recommended for funding by Bloomington city council’s sidewalk committee over the last 17 years. The darker the blue shading, the higher income the area is, based on US Census data. The image links to Bloomington resident Mark Stosberg’s “Sidewalk Equity Audit”

Not surviving the night was the council’s sidewalk committee.

The council started with a resolution could have eliminated as many as four of its committees. But the council unanimously agreed to preserve its housing committee and its climate action and resilience committee.

The council’s sanitation and utilities committee was merged with the community affairs committee.

The council’s sidewalk committee was not exactly eliminated.

But on a 5–4 vote, the sidewalk committee’s function was assigned to the transportation committee. That function is to make recommendations to the full council on the use of about $330,000 from the city’s alternative transportation fund, which purpose is to reduce the community’s dependence on automobiles.

The 5–4 vote by itself did not eliminate the sidewalk committee.

By the end of the meeting, it was not clear if the elimination of the sidewalk committee would come at a future meeting, in a housekeeping resolution, or if it would be eliminated through an authorization given to the council attorney, on a separate vote, to make revisions to the resolution.

The status of the sidewalk committee took up most of the council’s deliberative time on Wednesday night. The committee’s work had been put under close scrutiny by a report done by Bloomington citizen Mark Stosberg, which called into question the equitable geographic allocation of sidewalk funding over the last 17 years.

The council’s vote to authorize its attorney to take the amendments approved Wednesday night, and reconcile them with the list of committees to be abolished, was 7–2. Dissenting were Dave Rollo and Ron Smith. Rollo and Smith are two of the four members of the sidewalk committee. Rollo also dissented on the whole resolution as amended, which was approved on an 8–1 vote.

The vote on the transfer of the sidewalk committee’s responsibilities to the transportation committee appeared to be at odds with a vote taken earlier in the evening. That’s because the practical effect of transferring responsibilities was to eliminate the sidewalk committee. But the first of the amendments considered by the council was a straight-up vote to preserve the sidewalk committee, which came out 5–4.

The swing vote on the later amendment, which had the practical effect of eliminating the sidewalk committee, came from Sue Sgambelluri. On the first vote, she joined Rollo, Smith, Jim Sims and Susan Sandberg in favor of preserving the committee. On the second vote, Sgambelluri joined Matt Flaherty, Kate Rosenbarger, Steve Volan, and Isabel Piedmont-Smith in favor of transferring responsibilities to the transportation committee.

It’s not the first time the council has seen the same four-four split, with Sgambelluri as a swing vote.

The four-member transportation committee last year consisted of Volan, Piedmont-Smith, Smith and Rosenbarger. The sidewalk committee consisted of Sims, Rollo, Smith, and Rosenbarger.

For Smith and Rosenbarger, the shift in responsibilities from the sidewalk to the transportation committee has no impact on their participation on the substance of their committee work.

During deliberations, Volan offered Rollo his spot on the transportation committee this year in an effort to get Rollo’s support for transferring the responsibilities of the sidewalk committee to the transportation committee. Although councilmembers can express preferences for committee assignments, and the council president is supposed to observe preferences as closely as possible, the assignments will be made by the council president. This year that’s Jim Sims.

At its meeting on Tuesday this week, the sidewalk committee completed its work for the season, and made recommendations on $330,000 worth of sidewalk projects.

During deliberations at Wednesday’s council meeting, Sims was content with the improvements that the planning and transportation staff had made in developing geographically-based, objective equitability criteria. He felt the new approach addressed the equity concerns that were raised in Stosberg’s report.

Rollo was the most energetic proponent of maintaining the sidewalk committee and its responsibilities. Stosberg’s report identified Rollo’s District 4—a wealthier, less-dense part of town—as receiving a disproportionate share of sidewalk funding over the years.

Stosberg’s report concluded that Rollo’s advocacy for his district as a sidewalk committee member was not a “bad apple” case. The report stated: “By design, city councilmembers advocate for their districts. This is a systematic design flaw.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Rollo said that Stosberg’s report lacked “nuance.” He described how District 4 lacked many sidewalks because of a period from the 1950s through the 60s and 70s, when sidewalks weren’t included as a requirement of build-out for developers. When he had joined the council, Rollo said, then-councilmember Timothy Mayer had advocated that Rollo serve on the sidewalk committee, because District 4 is unique in having so few sidewalks in certain neighborhoods.

Rollo resisted the idea of completely objective criteria: “I wouldn’t want an automatic process—unless we were to have a huge fund and get all the sidewalk work projects done.” He added, “Maybe that’s the best way to go, is to have a bond of $10 million so that we can apply it to the 30 or so projects that are on our list right now.”

Responding to Rollo’s remarks about a $10 million bond, Rosenbarger said, “I am extremely excited to hear councilmember Rollo discussing bonding for massive sidewalk improvements in the city. I cannot wait to work on that with you. I will send you an email and we can get started.”

It was Rosenbarger who put forward the amendment to subsume the responsibilities of the sidewalk committee under the transportation committee.

She argued for the merging of the two committees as an effort to reduce the number of committees. “Sidewalks are a form of transportation, and the transportation committee did not get a lot of action last year.” She said it would be OK for the transportation committee to absorb the work of the sidewalk committee.

In the earlier debate over the straight-up elimination of the committee, Rosenbarger and Flaherty both argued against the idea that councilmembers were an essential part of the communication about where sidewalks are needed.

Based on LIDAR scans, Flaherty said, “We know exactly the condition and quality of all the sidewalks and roads in the city. We don’t need constituents telling us which ones are in disrepair—we actually know that. And that helps us to make the objective criteria that we should be following an objective process.”

Flaherty also said, “We really don’t take this level of granularity with most things.” As an example he gave street repaving: “It’d be very odd for us, for instance, to have a $500,000 budget for street repaving, and to choose which streets get repaved based on that.” He added, “And the same arguments can be made that district representatives know which streets need repaved the most, because they have constituents who tell them, which streets need repaved.”