Opinion: Who’s got time for Bloomington city board and commission service? Who knows?

The four-member administration committee of Bloomington’s city council will meet on Wednesday (Jan. 27) to discuss a piece of legislation that affects city boards and commissions, among other things.

The proposed legislation does nothing to help solve an identified problem related to recruiting people to serve on any of the city’s more than 40 citizen boards and commissions.

The problem: Information about the estimated time it takes to perform the duties of service on a board or commission does not exist for most boards and commissions.

If existing local law were followed, the information about service time estimates would not only exist, it would routinely be sent to local media.

Is information about a potential time commitment important? Of course it is.

Ranking high on the list of concerns that a potential board member might have is the amount of time that such service would take. 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.

Current local law requires that a board or commission assess how much time members spend serving in the group. They have to send that time estimate, along with a description of duties and some other information, to the appropriate place: the mayor’s office or the city council’s office. That communication is supposed to happen a month before an anticipated vacancy.

Those offices—of the mayor or the council—are supposed to edit the synopsis of information provided by the board or commission and send it along to local media.

The proposed ordinance revision makes the problem worse, in two ways.

First, the responsibility for publicity about the vacancy is removed from the mayor’s office or the council’s office, but placed on no one. That’s because the ordinance revision expresses the publicity requirement in the form of an agent-less passive-voice construction: “[A]n announcement shall be sent to the local media…” By whom? Who knows?

Under current law, there are two tasks, performed by two different entities. The board or commission has to keep track of its vacancies, because it has to send the information to the appropriate office a month before a term expiration. The appropriate office then has to advertise the information to the local media, after possibly editing the information.

Under the proposed revision, no one is assigned the task of keeping track of the vacancies. There’s also no one who is assigned the task of advertising to the media. If no one has responsibility for tracking vacancies or for making the announcement, that surely makes the problem worse.

Second, the ordinance revision removes any chronological tie to a board or commission’s duty to communicate. Instead of tying the activity of a required communication to an event in time (namely, an upcoming vacancy), the ordinance revision calls on the board or commission to “ensure” generally that website information is accurate.

The duty to ensure something isn’t easily enforceable. That’s why “ensure” is sometimes used in lawmaking not to describe the required activity, but as as a way of describing the reason for a required activity. For example: In order to ensure public safety, health and welfare, a public official must do X, Y and Z.

It’s good that the proposed ordinance revision retains the requirement that an “estimate of the time required to fulfill the duties” be included on the city’s website.

But if the required information does not appear on the city’s website, there is no point in time when the board or commission is required to undertake some action to correct the deficiency.

Board and commission members don’t generally have editing privileges for the city’s website, or the ability to issue orders to city staff. So even if they wanted to “ensure” that the information is accurate, they would not have the authority to undertake what the revised local law would demand of them.

It would not take a lot of work to amend the proposed ordinance change to avoid making the problem worse, without abandoning the basic idea. The basic idea for the ordinance revision is not bad.

The basic notion is to establish in local law that the city’s website will be the repository for the required information about a board or commission. [.pdf of possible amendments by The Square Beacon]

It is not so surprising that the proposed ordinance change would make a known problem even worse.

Bloomington seems to be a place where it’s mostly lip service that gets paid to the importance of boards and commissions.

But ordinance changes affecting these groups are treated as menial legislative work that somehow does not merit as much time and consideration as other changes to local law.

The ordinance revision now in front of the council is a hodgepodge of revisions to local code that councilmember Steve Volan tried to fast-track through the council’s legislative process at the end of 2020.

Volan used an uncommon procedural maneuver to wedge the legislation onto the council’s December calendar before the final meeting of the year—an occasion when local law prohibits introduction of new legislation.

The maneuver was the calling of a special meeting of the city council, which took place a week before year’s final meeting. The special meeting had just one purpose—to give the proposed ordinance a first reading.

Given that the council has not yet acted on the legislation, it does not appear that last year’s urgency was warranted.

A better piece of legislation might have been drafted, if it had been approached from the start with an open mind to community input about problems that might exist with the city’s board and commission recruitment process.

Instead, it was treated as something that needed just a perfunctory nod.

Based on about 18 months of Square Beacon coverage of Bloomington’s city government, its boards and commissions seem to be a bit of an afterthought.

What’s some of the evidence for that conclusion?

The city is litigating a case right now in front of Indiana’s court of appeals that stems from the failure of the mayor to make a plan commission appointment in a timely way. If the mayor had made the appointment within 90 days of the vacancy’s occurrence, the court case would not exist.

Late last year, the city council lost its ability to choose its own appointment to the Bloomington Transit board, because it failed to make an appointment in a timely way. Instead the GOP county chair got to make the appointment.

The city council failed as a group to make the transit board appointment in a timely way, because the council’s transportation standing committee failed to make a recommendation to the whole council in a timely way.

Judged by that standard, the new standing committees, compared to their predecessor “interview committees,” don’t look like much of a success. If board and commission appointments were considered important by the city council, they would have been front and center in the council’s most recent debate about  standing committees. Board and commission appointments were missing from that most recent discussion.

Also late last year, the mayor’s office decided a day after making an appointment to the parking commission that an appointee’s Facebook posts were “not a reflection of the city that we are,” and removed him from the commission.

The city’s commission on Hispanic and Latino affairs is holding up its end of the bargain by doing its assigned work. But when the commission’s chair delivered its annual activities report at the council’s most recent meeting, city councilmembers had not one question or comment for him.

If city councilmembers had even a basic curiosity or interest in the commission’s work, they could have followed up on an item in the report, that the Black y Brown Arts Festival was cancelled last year. What happened to the funding for last year’s festival—will it be carried forward to next year?  Councilmembers sat mute, even though they were unmuted on the Zoom video-conference call.

The Hispanic and Latino affairs commission’s report to the city council was not just a courtesy. The commission is required under local law to submit an annual report of its activities. The fact that the commission submitted the required report counts as one in the win column.

Cancelling out that win has been the city parking commission’s failure to comply with its reporting requirement to the city council—for the last three years. The most recent annual report available from the parking commission is from 2016, which was the first one delivered by the commission after its creation.

The city council as a group appears to have little interest in demanding that the parking commission comply with its reporting requirement, which is part of the same law that the council enacted to establish the commission.

What happens when a substantive legislative issue arises that might benefit from the acknowledged expertise of an existing board or commission? It’s not obvious to city councilmembers that they should try to tap that expertise for substantive policy input.

Just this week, authors of a proposed ordinance on protections for the homeless asked Bloomington’s human rights commission to support the draft ordinance. But the authors did not provide the commissioners with a draft of the ordinance that they could vote to support.

When a sitting circuit court judge serves on the city’s human rights commission, it’s hard to imagine why the authors of the proposed new law would not want to get her input, along with that of other commissioners.

Instead of their input, human rights commissioners were asked for their blessing. It’s not surprising that commissioners declined at that meeting, respectfully, to vote on the question.

On Wednesday, the council’s administration committee will likely just vote to send the proposed ordinance change on board and commissions to the whole council, without thinking much about a basic question: What problem does this solve?

Here’s the answer, if any committee member decides to ask: The legislation doesn’t solve a problem—it makes a known problem worse.