Column: Bloomington city council should quickly kill ordinance on meeting length, focus instead on budget, annexation and climate change

Introduced at last Wednesday’s Bloomington city council meeting was a possible new local law (Ordinance 21-34) that would attempt to put a time limit on city council meetings.

Probably every current and future Bloomington resident would welcome a world where the meetings of the local legislature did not last until 3:30 a.m.

Of course that’s exactly what happened on March 3 this year, when the city council debated an ordinance on protections for homeless encampments. The council was evenly split 4–4 on the substance of the issue, because one councilmember was absent due to a family tragedy.

Does Bloomington’s city council need yet another procedural tool, in order to avoid an overlong meeting like the one on March 3?

Of course not.

The council already has some tools that could have been used to do the job.

Should the Bloomington city council now invest any of its collective energy trying to repair the technical flaws in the proposed ordinance by considering amendments? No. The proposed ordinance cannot be salvaged through amendments.

The city council should instead start taking a hard look at the toxic procedural dysfunctions that often lead to 3-hour meetings  that could have ended at the 2-hour mark. Or 2-hour meetings that could have ended after 45 minutes. Or committee meetings that need not have been scheduled in the first place.

Instead of wallowing in the mire of patch-wise procedural revisions, the city council should instead focus first on its actual business.

Among its currently pending items are the 2022 budget, the annexation proposal, and climate change.

The city’s climate action plan, which was adopted in April, includes more than a dozen pieces of recommended new legislation, which it would be up to the council to enact. But in the four months since the plan’s adoption, the council has made no visible effort on any of those recommended local laws.

The council will be considering Ordinance 21-34 at a committee-of-the-whole meeting on Sept. 8, which is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m.

That could set up Ord 21-34 for a vote on Sept. 15, the same night the council is supposed to be considering eight different annexation ordinances.

A merciful approach by the city council would see Ord 21-34 voted down inside of five minutes at the Sept. 15 meeting.

But the idea that even five minutes of the Sept. 15 meeting would be taken up with dilatory debate about Ord 21-34 is an insult to the public—especially the property owners whose land is the subject of annexation ordinances.

The night of Sept. 8 already reflects an odd ranking of apparent council priorities. A special meeting has been scheduled at 7:45 p.m. to follow the committee meeting on Ord 21-34.

The purpose of the special meeting is for the council to consider a resolution on police officer pay, which is related to the administration’s proposed 2022 budget.

The evening of Sept. 8 could be an occasion for the city council to focus on squarely and exclusively on the 2022 budget. The council could do that by making the only topic of the evening a police pay resolution, and any other resolutions that might help express to the administration the council’s majority view on specific budget matters.

Instead, the council has chosen to blur its proper focus and allow itself to be distracted by a committee meeting about an unnecessary, and technically flawed piece of legislation.

Why the March 3, 2021 went so long

On the occasion of March 3, neither side of the 4–4 split took advantage of existing meeting procedures, which would have avoided the late end to the meeting.

The four opponents could have supported a motion to postpone consideration until a future meeting. The four supporters of the ordinance could have:

(1) withdrawn the ordinance from the agenda at the start of the meeting, thereby delaying its second reading until a subsequent meeting;
(2) departed from the meeting, leaving the remaining four without a quorum, thus ending the meeting without a vote, and thereby pushing the vote to some future meeting; or
(3) moved ahead with a quick vote, on which one of their number could have cast a vote against it, putting that councilmember on the prevailing side, giving them the right to move for reconsideration of the ordinance, which is a debatable motion.

Ord 21-34 looks like a naked attempt to try to re-litigate the question of whose fault it was that the March 3 meeting went as long as it did.

The sole author of the proposed ordinance is Steve Volan, who supported the homeless encampment protections. At the council’s meeting two weeks after March 3, Volan took the occasion to deliver a 10-minute rebuke of his colleagues, blaming them as solely responsible for the overlong meeting.

But already on the night of March 3, Volan was blaming his colleagues, inaccurately calling the other four “the majority” in claiming that they, and not his side, had control of the meeting’s duration.

Arguing for a motion to postpone, after seven hours of meeting time, with the council obviously deadlocked 4–4 on the substance of the question, Volan did not just blame his colleagues.

He also issued a kind of threat: “And I for one, I’m not going to give up my right to speak to this issue, as I have many times before, in the name of lateness, that it was in the control the majority to have not put us through this seven-hour meeting. We could have broken it up over time.”

The March 3, 2021 meeting went longer than it needed to, in part because Volan’s side was not in adequate command of their procedural options.

Technical flaws of proposed ordinance on meeting length

The ordinance as proposed has a number of technical flaws, independent of its desired effect.

The desired effect is to give any single councilmember the power to end a city council meeting after 11:59 p.m. or after five and a half hours, whichever comes first.

So the first question councilmembers should ask is: Do we really want to make the will of a council majority subordinate to the will of a single member?

It’s a bizarre proposition. For any clear thinking elected official, the answer should be no.

It’s not hard to imagine a circumstance where eight city councilmembers might reasonably want to continue deliberations past midnight. But the ninth would be in a position to use their power to end the meeting, and thereby to try to extract political concessions from the other eight, in order to be convinced to allow the meeting to continue. That’s not a dynamic that the council’s procedures should make possible.

Even if the council decides it wants to enact an ordinance that puts the power to end a meeting in the hands of a single councilmember, the proposed ordinance as written does not do that.

The ordinance itself simply forces the meeting to end under certain conditions, without any human intervention.

Here’s the partial text of the ordinance.

2.04.420 – Motion to adjourn or recess.

(c) No meeting of the council or any of its committees, including committees appointed directly by the Council or its presiding officer, shall continue after five and a half hours from
the meeting’s call to order or after 11:59 p.m. local time, whichever occurs first, without unanimous consent of the members present.
A motion to adjourn under this paragraph made after five and a half hours from the meeting’s call to order or after 11:59 p.m. local time shall not require a second or a vote, shall take precedence over a motion to recess, and shall have the effect of ending the meeting, regardless of what items on that meeting’s agenda have not yet been voted on or taken up.
(1) A motion to recess to another day, which requires a second and a majority vote, shall not be in order unless the meeting’s time of resumption is at least twenty-four hours after its initial call to order.
(2) Paragraph (c) shall not be subject to suspension under section 2.04.090.

According to Volan, who described the ordinance at the city council’s work session on Aug. 20, the first sentence of the ordinance would by itself have no effect on the meeting.

The meeting could continue past midnight or longer than five and a half hours, if no councilmember complained, according to Volan. That’s because for no councilmember to make a motion to adjourn or recess would amount to unanimous consent, Volan contended.

Volan’s analysis is wrong. That’s because the idea of “unanimous consent” is a term of art in Robert’s Rules, which is supposed to be the city council’s procedural authority on matters that are not explicitly addressed in city code.

Unanimous consent under Robert’s Rules is not something that conjured up by the failure of anyone to raise a point of order or make some motion. Rather, unanimous consent is something that is obtained from the assembly by the chair through a specific procedure. Ways to obtain unanimous consent are described in Robert’s Rules:

[T]he chair states that “If there is no objection… [or, “Without objection…”],” the action that he mentions will be taken; or he may ask, “Is there any objection to…?” He then pauses, and if no member calls out, “I object,” the chair announces that, “Since there is no objection…,” the action is decided upon. [Robert, Henry M.. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition (p. 103).]

Another way to establish unanimous consent is by taking a vote on the question.

That’s what the city council does when it routinely allows readings of legislation by title and synopsis only, instead of having the entire piece of legislation read aloud. The city code on that topic says (emphasis added), “At each reading of an ordinance the synopsis shall be read and the clerk shall read the ordinance by title only, provided there is unanimous consent.”

Instead of taking a vote—which is required to be conducted by roll call whenever meetings are held on a remote video conference platform—the city council president could just say: “Is there any objection to the clerk reading aloud the ordinance by title and synopsis only? Hearing none, will the clerk please read.”

That’s an approach that could save an estimated 15 seconds per piece of legislation over the last 18 months. It doesn’t sound like much—until you multiply it by 165, which is the number of such occasions since the council started meeting on Zoom, due to the pandemic. That’s about 40 minutes of total meeting time the council could have saved, just by taking advantage of existing procedural options.

The point here is that no vote is required in order to obtain unanimous consent—but unanimous consent is not established just because the clock ticks to midnight and no councilmember says anything by way of complaint.

Under the proposed Ord 21-34 as written, if unanimous consent is not obtained before 11:59 p.m., or before five and a half hours of meeting time has elapsed, the meeting ends on its own with no action required by any councilmember.

Of course, the words on the page of an ordinance can’t themselves stop people from talking. If Ord 21-34 were enacted it would still be physically possible for the council to continue a meeting, and take several votes after 11:59 p.m. even if unanimous consent to continue past midnight were not obtained.

That seems like it would set up the council to face possible litigation over the validity of the votes it took after midnight, if no unanimous consent had been obtained.

There are several other technical points that would need to be resolved in order to yield a piece of legislation that achieves its intended effect.

Procedural reform

There is no question that Bloomington’s city council should be looking at some kind of significant reform to its meeting procedures.

That’s why two years ago, in the second half of 2019, then-president of the city council, Dave Rollo, appointed a council committee to study changes to council meeting rules and make recommendations.

That committee didn’t ever deliver recommendations to the council. That’s partly because the rules committee responsibilities were supposed to be taken over by one of the new standing committees formed in early 2020—the administration committee. The administration committee has not taken up the topic of the council’s meeting procedures.

The kind of work that a council committee needs to do is tedious: Go line-by-line through Title 2 of the city code and identify potential problems.

Here’s the work The B Square has done on the topic: Annotated Title 2.

Those annotations were developed with the help of several Bloomington residents. Of course, the city council’s review of its procedures would demand more than just line-by-line scrutiny of city code.

Instead of trying to patch its procedures in piecemeal fashion, as the Ord 21-34 would do, the council should resume the work that the rules committee of 2019 was supposed to complete.

That work should ideally take place at meetings of the administration committee in the coming months. The topic should not take a higher priority than items like the city budget and climate change.

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

  • 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?

Bloomington residents are surely ready for city council meetings that better serve the public’s time. A good first step would be to waste no time in voting down Ord 21-34.

4 thoughts on “Column: Bloomington city council should quickly kill ordinance on meeting length, focus instead on budget, annexation and climate change

  1. Wonderful analysis of the situation and great recommendation. Anything dealing with procedure should be delayed until after annexation, budget, and other legislation that contributes to the operation of the city.

  2. Meetings that run into the middle of the night suppress the rights of the public to provide immediate feedback to their elected representatives through meeting comments. It is akin to vote suppression by limiting the hours or locations of voting spots. What effect would it have if you had to vote at 3am? Additionally, what effect does it have on our elected representatives to have to rationally think and reason at that hour? Using fatigue to win arguments is a poor way to govern.

  3. This is a great analysis. So many Boards have adopted Roberts Rules which is too bad. The simplified modern rules of order are much more suited and take only two pages to set forth. What is the point of using Roberts Rules if no one on the Council is familiar with them?

    It is hard to have any interest in proceedings that take as long as the history of Rome. It is an especially poor service to the public when dealing with citizens’ property rights. I’ve been waiting for a newly elected council person to raise hell about these issues, but Dave Askins has done it first. Thanks to Dave and the Beacon for this smart, cogent piece.

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