Opinion: Legislating against Bloomington’s long city council meetings would not be a good use of time

At last Friday’s work session held by Bloomington’s city council, councilmember Steve Volan announced that he would be submitting a new ordinance for consideration that would “set a hard limit for all meetings to five and a half hours.”

Volan’s proposal to make city council meeting length a matter of local law comes after a record-setting nine-hour city council meeting that took place in early March.

On Friday, Volan added, “I don’t know when leadership would like to take that up. I’d like to see it taken up as soon as possible.”

I’d like to see Volan’s proposed ordinance ignored by the council’s leadership.

Consideration of such an ordinance would count as a distraction from a more pressing need—to address the kind of basic procedural dysfunctions that plague Bloomington’s city council.

While a nine-hour meeting can be headline grabbing, three-hour meetings that should have required only 90 minutes are also problematic. Perhaps even more troublesome are whole meetings that could have easily been elided.

Piecemeal patches?

Over the last few years, Bloomington’s city council has implemented piecemeal patches to meeting procedures. Among them was a change to the law on the regular meeting start time: from 7:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. In the last couple of months, the council tweaked the law involving how referrals to committees are made.

Considering a specific law on meeting length would continue this piecemeal, patch-wise approach. It would avoid grappling with several worthwhile questions that I think have needed attention for a long time. For example, there are inconsistencies between Bloomington’s local laws on city council procedure and the requirements of state law that have persisted for decades.

Some questions that merit study include, but aren’t limited to:

  • What are some factors that lead to overlong meetings?
  • What are some factors that make city council meetings especially accessible, efficient, inclusive, or even enjoyable—for councilmembers, staff, and the public?
  • How is adequate preparation for meetings by councilmembers, staff, and the public encouraged and supported?
  • Which procedures could be streamlined without sacrificing transparency or compliance with state statutes?
  • Which aspects of currently practiced procedure are codified in local law, state statute, Robert’s Rules, and which are simply an unwritten, uncodified custom?
  • What aspects of city council meeting procedures do councilmembers, staff, and the public identify as problematic?

These questions deserve scrutiny and study.  They won’t get that study, if the council continues to pursue the kind of piecemeal patch that Volan said he plans to propose.

There’s a predictable counter to this argument: We’re a “both-and” kind of community so we can both enact this law and study the general questions, too.

The historical record on patches to procedure refutes that attempted counterargument. I think it is exactly the piecemeal patches that have caused a city council procedural dysfunction that is distinctively Bloomington’s.

A lack of procedural knowledge?

In addition, the consideration of a law on meeting length could serve to perpetuate a misleading narrative that Volan has told since the March 3 nine-hour meeting.

Volan has claimed that the sole blame for the March 3 meeting length must fall on those councilmembers who were on the other side from him on that night’s 4–4 split. On Volan’s telling, the extraordinary meeting time was due to gaps in the other side’s understanding of the procedural options available to them.

Volan’s implication is that for his side of the 4–4 split there was no available option that could have ended the meeting earlier. Consideration of a new law on meeting length would invite rhetoric along the following lines: If only this tool had been available to Volan’s side on March 3, they could have used it to end the meeting earlier.

Here’s how Volan has portrayed the events of March 3 [emphasis added]:

My colleagues, who consistently…claim…to be prepared for issues that come before us were, I believe, supremely unprepared to prevent this catastrophe of procedure, which was entirely of their making. …If they do not know procedure well enough to prevent the council meeting from going nine hours straight, they’re not upholding their duty as council members.”

In this context, I think it’s hyperbolic to invoke the concept of “duty.” But by Volan’s own standard, he did not on that occasion uphold his duty as a councilmember.

Here’s why. What led to the stalemate on March 3 was the even numerical split that arose due to the absence of Jim Sims, who was unable to attend the meeting. Neither side had a majority.

That also meant: Neither side had the numbers to maintain a quorum on the nine-member city council.

Volan’s side of the 4–4 split could have departed from the meeting, leaving the remaining four without a quorum to continue. The chair would have declared the meeting adjourned. Check and mate.

In fact, early in the March 3 meeting, councilmember Matt Flaherty had cleared the way to kill quorum. He got unanimous support from the council to alter the agenda, so that the controversial legislation would be the final item considered that night. That meant the tactic of killing quorum, ending the meeting, would not have had the undesired side effect of leaving other public business unfinished.

If Volan’s side of the 4–4 split had recognized this option, they could have ensured that the controversial legislation that they supported would have at least survived the night. At the same time, they could have ended the meeting around about six hours earlier.

The use of quorum as part of a procedural maneuver is not some advanced, arcane topic known only to procedural nerds.

Non-nerd Hoosiers across the state must surely remember the 2011 walkout organized by the Democrats in the state house of representatives, which denied the Republicans the quorum they needed to pass a right-to-work bill.

Use standing committees to develop, not review legislation

Instead of considering the ordinance that Volan has drafted, the city council could consider using a standing committee in a somewhat novel way, compared to the prevailing custom.

The idea would be to use a standing committee to develop legislation, as opposed to reviewing already-drafted legislation that has been referred to it by the full council.

The idea of using standing committees in this way is not original with me. The potential usefulness of standing committees as a platform for councilmembers to develop legislation has been touted by councilmembers as an advantage of a robust committee structure, even if they have not used it that way.

This way of using standing committees was cited during city council deliberations in February 2020, when the 5–4 vote on establishing standing committees was taken.

Councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith voted in support of establishing standing committees at the Feb. 19, 2020 city council meeting. On that occasion, she said [emphasis added]: “And the flexibility of standing committees is that they can also have hearings on an issue before legislation is written.”

Piedmont-Smith elaborated, “So much of our legislation does come from the administration. But some of it comes from councilmembers. …There are often stakeholders that are quite concerned about the legislation that we discuss, as they should be, and that are experts. And that should be brought in before legislation is written.”

Piedmont-Smith wrapped up her point: “The standing committee structure allows for hearings to be held in order to develop legislation. And so I think that’s another way in which we benefit the public. We say, Hey, there’s an issue out here. Let’s see, let’s get some experts in here. Let’s get the public and the stakeholders in here to talk about it. And then we can work on some legislation. So I think it’s a good structure.”

When legislation is referred to a standing committee, the committee has to report back to the full council within the second regular meeting of the council, after which the item was referred to the committee.

But if a standing committee takes up an issue on its own initiative, there’s unlimited time for consideration. The committee can report to the full council on its own schedule, or never report on the topic at all.

Another committee option would be for the president of the city council to appoint an ad hoc committee, to review the topic of city council meeting procedures and make recommendations. Such ad hoc committees are subject to Indiana’s Open Door Law, just like the standing committees are.

Next steps

In sum, the consideration by Bloomington’s city council at this time, of an already-drafted law to limit the length of council meetings, would not be a productive focus.

But the general topic of the city council’s generally dysfunctional procedural practice, which contributes to overlong meetings, could be worth taking up in the context of a smaller committee.

One thought on “Opinion: Legislating against Bloomington’s long city council meetings would not be a good use of time

  1. An interesting project would be to explore how much time the council spends discussing how much time their meetings are. Whether it is discussing for 20 minutes Whether they should extend beyond 10:30 or the various times they discuss why meetings are so long.

    The biggest factor in long meetings is public comment and council comment. Perhaps there could be a way to curtail both

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