On Wednesday night, Bloomington’s city council passed a resolution that abolished most of the council’s standing committees.
Councilmember Steve Volan began his final commentary with his assessment of those who had proposed the resolution: “The sponsors don’t like doing math.”
In the end, the only math that mattered was the sum of votes in favor of the resolution, which was 5. Volan was one of the four who opposed the resolution, which was sponsored by Susan Sandberg, Sue Sgambelluri, and Jim Sims. Also voting for the resolution were Ron Smith and Dave Rollo.
Volan was joined in dissent by Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Kate Rosenbarger, and Matt Flaherty.
Wednesday’s council action effectively undid an early 2020 decision by the council to establish a several new four-member standing committees. As newly-elected council president that year, Volan had managed to assemble a 5–4 majority in support of the new committees.
Two years later, the only difference in the 5–4 split was the vote of Sue Sgambelluri. She supported the creation of new committees in 2020. But Sgambelluri co-sponsored Wednesday’s resolution abolishing them.
The 5–4 split on the resolution is one that some councilmembers are increasingly starting to see as a fundamental divide, even if it’s not along party lines. All members of the Bloomington city council are Democrats.
After an amendment, the resolution preserved the climate action and resilience committee, but eliminated the rest of the 2020 committees. Wednesday’s resolution also eliminated the land use committee, which the council had established in 2018.
Some other standing committees that existed before 2020 were either preserved or restored by Wednesday’s resolution: the sidewalk committee; the Jack Hopkins social services funding committee; and three three-member “interview committees” that are responsible for reviewing appointments to various boards and commissions.
About her change in perspective since 2020, Sgambelluri said Wednesday night: “I also believe that, overall, standing committees have not shown themselves to be the best tool, or even the better tool for managing council’s workload.”
A reduced workload for individual councilmembers was one of the basic arguments that was put forward in favor of four-member standing committees. If just four councilmembers have to attend a meeting to give proposed legislation an initial review—between the first and second readings—the other five have that meeting off. The historical choice the council had made was to use a “committee of the whole” to review legislation between first and second readings. The creation of the land use committee in 2018 was the council’s first foray into additional council committees.
Many of the arguments on Wednesday focussed on the role that four-member standing committees could play in the ordinary process of reviewing legislation after introduction, before taking a final vote at a second reading. Under state statute and local code, a final vote on an ordinance can’t be taken at the same meeting or on the same day as it is first introduced, unless there’s unanimous agreement. But there is no legal requirement that a committee—either a four-member standing committee or a committee of the whole—consider legislation before it is heard at a second reading.
In fact, on Wednesday, the council voted to skip any committee review of an ordinance that was first read that night. The proposed ordinance would revise the membership requirements for the parking commission and the redistricting commission. The council’s vote means that Ord 22-04 will not be reviewed at a committee-of-the-whole meeting next week. Instead, it will be heard at the next regular meeting of the council, on Feb. 2.
On Wednesday, the vote to skip the committee meeting for Ord 22-04 was split 5–4, along the same lines as the standing committee vote in 2020. Then, as on Wednesday, Sgambelluri joined the four who generally favor four-member standing committees over the committee of the whole as a mechanism for review of legislation between readings.
Sgambelluri’s vote on skipping a committee-of-the-whole meeting, which came after an acrimonious evening of debate, could be analyzed as an incremental step towards bridging the 5–4 divide in the remaining two years for the terms of current councilmembers.
But that’s an open question. Early in the contentious deliberations, Flaherty floated a proposal that might have avoided another 5–4 split along familiar lines. He had sponsored an amendment that proposed to preserve three of the four-member standing committees: climate action and resilience; administration; and land use. An amendment that would have preserved the transportation committee was sponsored by Rosenbarger.
Flaherty made a pitch for compromise on the overall resolution along the following lines: He was willing to support the overall resolution, if the four committees in the amendments were preserved. Flaherty did not try to make a case that the four committees should have legislation referred to them, instead of the committee of the whole. Instead, the idea was to allow those committees to do the ongoing work of study and research in their respective topic areas.
Here’s how Flaherty put it:
I see [Amendment 01] as a substantial compromise, along with Amendment 02, that are pretty reasonable and well defended. Again, I’ll ask for your support in these. While it’s my preference to use standing committees more for legislation, and that’s fine—that’s not the majority view of this council at this time. With Amendments 01 and 02, I feel like that’s an adequate compromise, that I would be willing to support the resolution as a whole. So thank you for your consideration.
Later, Ron Smith, who voted to eliminate most of the standing committees, was critical of the four-member groups. Smith said saying the four-member committees contributed to an “ideological divide” on the council. Smith said, “We don’t all sit together, and we don’t all talk together. And I feel that we really do need to come together.”
A bit later, Flaherty renewed his pitch for compromise: “Just to speak to the idea of bridging gaps and differences in preferences, I think it is important to be very clear: I think Amendments 01 and 02 are essential to doing that.”
But the first two amendments failed on 4–5 votes. The third one, which preserved the climate action and resilience committee, passed unanimously.
The preservation of just the climate action committee was not the level of compromise that Flaherty and others, including several public commenters, were looking for.
Sgambelluri reprised some of her commentary from the initial deliberations on the standing committee question, which were held a week ago. Sgambelluri was reacting to the characterization of the council given by Piedmont-Smith last week that the council was divided into two “groups”—those who are more likely to challenge the status quo and those who are not.
On Wednesday, Sgambelluri used the word “faction” when she spoke on the topic: “Last week it was asserted that council has a progressive faction and a status quo faction and that it’s the progressive caucus that’s coming forward with fresh new ideas that will improve government. I’ve already said on the record that I find such distinctions unhelpful.”
The starkest rift among councilmembers on Wednesday night appeared to be between Volan and two others: Rollo and Sandberg.
Responding to a question from Volan, Sandberg indicated that she thinks councilmembers have an obligation to attend committee-of-the-whole meetings. Volan followed up by asking about Sandberg’s participation in the council’s standing public safety committee, to which she had been assigned.
Volan addressed Sandberg: “I’d like to, Councilmember Sandberg, remind you that you were appointed to committees that you said you did not want to attend. Didn’t you have the same obligation to attend those committees, that you believe we all have, to attend the committee of the whole?”
Sandberg responded “I really don’t know what you’re talking about in terms of committee meetings that I was assigned to. I did participate in them. One, I did ask to be removed from, with respect to other obligations that I was attending to. But another councilperson was appointed in my stead.”
Sandberg wrapped up her answer to Volan by saying, “But I think accusing me of not being in attendance at meetings is something I would hope that you would not go there with me.”
Rollo was chairing the meeting during deliberations on the resolution, because council president Sandberg was a co-sponsor.
Volan started off his closing commentary by saying, “The sponsors don’t like doing math. They don’t like thinking about decision theory and how they might have to anticipate possible outcomes that might dictate a different schedule.”
After additional criticism of the sponsors, because they had failed to anticipate outcomes the previous week, Volan continued, “In short, in general, the sponsors and the obvious majority here tonight, don’t get committees. They’ve never gotten the basic idea behind committees. They’ve never tried to get why anyone would create a set of standing committees. They don’t get committees or procedure. They only know what they were used to back in the good old days, when their…”
At that point, Rollo interrupted Volan, “Councilmember Volan, please address the legislation and not the integrity or the motives of the sponsors.”
Volan responded to Rollo, by saying, “Once again, I’m being interrupted, for something I didn’t do.”
The pair went back and forth for a bit over the question of whether Volan had engaged in a personal attack on other councilmembers. After Rollo told him, “You have a floor,” Volan continued, but had a parting shot, “Until you interrupt me again.”
Part of the background to Wednesday’s friction between Rollo and Volan included back-and-forth between Rollo and Flaherty at the first meeting of the year when officers were elected—including Rollo’s election as parliamentarian.
On that occasion, Flaherty asked Rollo how he would handle it during a meeting if one councilmember questioned another member’s motives. Rollo replied, “That’s inappropriate to question the motives. We need to evaluate the matter at hand in terms of legislation, not the personal bias or politics or whatever…” Flaherty followed up with Rollo: “And would you call out that behavior as out of order, if you were parliamentarian?” Rollo responded: “Yes.”
Rollo’s council service started in 2003, which makes him the longest-serving current councilmember. Volan, whose service began in 2004, is the second-longest-serving councilmember.
The Bloomington city council consists of nine Democrats. It’s a fact that Rosenbarger mentioned on Wednesday in her appeal for support of Flaherty’s amendment. “Compromising can be a pretty nice thing on a council of nine Democrats,” Rosenbarger said.
At the end of the night, Flaherty was brief in his final remarks, “It’s hard for me to overstate how disappointed I am in five of my colleagues tonight. That’s my comment. Thank you.”