On Thursday morning, a proposed local law that would have provided certain protections to people experiencing homelessness failed to get the five votes it needed on the nine-member Bloomington city council.
The vote was a 4–4 tie. City council president Jim Sims was not able to attend the meeting. Chairing the meeting in his absence was vice president Sue Sgambelluri.
The meeting started on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. The vote was taken nearly nine hours later, at 3:21 a.m.
The split on the council was along fault lines that have become familiar.
Voting for the ordinance were: Matt Flaherty, Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Kate Rosenbarger, and Steve Volan.
Voting against it were: Dave Rollo, Ron Smith, Sue Sgambelluri, and Susan Sandberg.
Ordinance sponsors were Flaherty, Rosenbarger, and Piedmont-Smith.
Last week, in its guise as the committee of the whole, the council deliberated about five hours on the ordinance.
The law would have prevented the displacement of houseless people from their encampments in city parks, unless certain conditions were met. Among the conditions was a 15-day noticing requirement to those who would be displaced. Another condition required adequate housing to be available to those who would be displaced.
One of the alternatives provided in the proposed law was for the city to designate for houseless campers locations on public property with access to bathrooms and within a mile of distribution points for prepared meals.
Under the proposed law, if the city designated such locations, with adequate space for those experiencing homelessness, then encampments could be displaced from city parks without meeting the conditions.
Bloomington mayor John Hamilton was opposed to the ordinance.
Opposition by staff and by council opponents was based on factors like: the parts of the ordinance that they characterized as vague; the uncertain fiscal impact that the ordinance would have; and the liability the city would accept by designating a place for people could sleep, if they had no other place to go.
For supporters of the ordinance on the council, and those who spoke during public commentary during the meeting, the key question that the ordinance would have answered is: Where can someone legally sleep in Bloomington, if they are unable or unwilling to stay at a shelter?
The 2 hours and 10 minutes of public commentary on the ordinance at the meeting—not including comments on the ordinance amendments—was overwhelmingly, but not universally, in favor of the ordinance.
The final turn at public commentary came from Perry Township trustee Dan Combs, who spoke in favor of it, saying that it’s important to make an effort at solving the problem: “If we don’t try, we will never resolve it. And at what point then will we begin to try? Thank you. That’s all I have to say. It’s much too late.”
Shortly before Wednesday’s deliberations, ordinance sponsors provided two possible amendments to the proposal. One would have added emergency shelter—to the transitional and permanent housing specified by the original wording—as counting towards the sufficient housing that would have to be available, before people could be displaced from an encampment.
The other amendment would have affected the location of the designated area that the city might establish for people to camp. The original wording said it had to be within a mile of an organization that provides prepared meals and that it include access to restrooms. The amendment said the designated location had to be within a quarter mile of a public bus stop.
The hope was that the amendments would be seen as having enough potential, that opponents might be inclined at least to consider referring the ordinance to another committee hearing.
They were not so inclined.
Rollo said, “I think, in many ways it is irredeemable in its present form. I can’t imagine that it is going to be salvageable.”
Sandberg said, “I don’t think it’s amendable. And I feel very strongly that if we don’t stop this process, we’re not going to be able to close the chapter, to be able to open the door to a better way forward.”
The vote on referral to the public safety standing committee came at around 9:20 p.m. It was the same 4–4 split as for the final vote on the ordinance.
That set up the council for a long slog. The four opponents would not have had enough votes to end debate by calling the question.
After another full presentation of the ordinance by Rosenbarger, the council went through a round of questions and deliberations that at one point dissolved into bickering between Volan and Rollo.
After public commentary concluded, at around 1:40 a.m. Flaherty made a second try to keep the ordinance alive, by making a motion to postpone its consideration to April 7.
Flaherty made a case for postponement, based in part on the absence of Sims: “I feel like we would be best served by having all nine members of the council available to vote on this issue.”
Several public commenters had made the point that it would be valuable to have the perspective of Sims, as the one Black member of the city council, included in the deliberations.
Flaherty continued, “I think it’s probably far too late for debate and for the questions, let alone bringing amendments that I think are complex and substantive and have real trade offs that deserve vetting, with input from administration, community members, people experiencing homelessness, and other stakeholders.”
The council split 4–4 on postponement, which meant that Flaherty’s motion failed.
So Flaherty soldiered on with the first of the two amendments. It would have added emergency shelter—to transitional and permanent housing—as counting towards available alternative options for displaced campers.
Opponents indicated that they would not vote for the ordinance even if it were amended. Smith put it this way: “It’s not going to make a difference. It’s a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation.”
So ordinance sponsors wound up voting against the amendment, along with the four opponents. Volan was alone in supporting the amendment.
None of the sponsors were inclined even to move the second amendment, which would have stipulated that the city’s designated camping location would need to be within a quarter mile of a public bus stop.
Rosenbarger put it this way: “I don’t see a point in introducing it. It is just another compromise to work on concerns that were voiced. But no one here is up for that.”
The final vote on the unamended ordinance came at 3:21 a.m.
Volan said at a couple of points that it was the longest meeting he’d ever attended. Based on Tweets during the meeting by former city clerk Regina Moore and current city clerk Nicole Bolden, the 9-hour marathon might have been the longest since records have been kept.