Column: Let’s try making journalists out of Bloomington’s elected officials

Bloomington has way fewer local news reporters than in years past.

This image extracted from the boilerplate section of a Bloomington city council agenda. Yellow highlights have been added to reflect the topic of this column.

In a column published last November by The Limestone Post, former Herald-Times reporter Steve Hinnefeld put some specific numbers on that trend. The newsroom at his former paper has diminished from 50 to just a dozen, Hinnefeld wrote.

If you didn’t read it at the time, or even if you did, the link to Hinnefeld’s column is worth a click.

The shortage of reporters is not confined to any one beat. But the one I care most about is local government news.

How can we, as a community, pull together to make up for the current deficit in local news coverage of local government?

I think Bloomington’s city councilmembers could help fill the gap. To be clear, I am not suggesting that city councilmembers start writing articles for local news outlets.

The idea is simple: Bloomington city councilmembers should rethink the way they use their time that is labeled on their meeting agendas as “reports” from councilmembers.

I have seen other labels for that spot on the agenda for other public agencies—“announcements” or “comments” or “communications.”

But the Bloomington city council calls that section “reports.”

As long as they call it that, what if councilmembers treated that time as a chance literally to report, as a journalist might, on their recent activity as a paid elected official?

Mostly, that would not replace some different use that the nine councilmembers already make of their meeting “report” time.

Here’s how I know that journalistic use of the time would not displace some other use.

The five regular council meetings in 2022 so far translate into 45 chances to hear a civic news report from city councilmembers. Of those 45 chances, close to half (21) have yielded no report at all. Another 20 percent of them (9) have been devoted exclusively to an announcement of an upcoming constituent meeting for the individual councilmember.

Those two categories alone make for two-thirds of all potential reporting turns so far this year. That means for at least 67 percent of those potential speaking turns, councilmembers have not taken the chance to report about events of the immediate past that made up their work as elected officials.

Instead of an announcement about an upcoming constituent event, the council’s meeting time could be better invested in two-sentences of talk about the topics that were discussed at the previous constituent event. Here’s what that might sound like:

At my most recent constituent meeting, a topic of interest that was raised was the possibility of a local income tax increase this year. Given that we have heard from the mayor that we are definitely going to be asked to raise the income tax, I think we as a council should put that as a point of discussion on a work session agenda sometime this month.

I think the councilmember representative to a board or commission should routinely use the council’s meeting time to report on the most recent board or commission action. For the plan commission, here’s what that might sound like:

At the last plan commission meeting, we approved a plat for the new Hopewell neighborhood. That includes an alley vacation that the council will be asked to approve sometime soon. So I’d like to ask that our council staff make sure that the plan commission meeting video from Feb. 7 is uploaded to YouTube with its auto-transcript. And it would be great for the link to the relevant spot in that video be included in our council meeting information packet.

Or imagine that the city council appointed liaisons to all the boards and commissions to which the council makes appointments. That way, when appointments are made, sometime in recent memory, at least one councilmember will have seen the relevant board or commission in action. The liaison to the board of housing quality appeals could deliver a dispatch during a council meeting that might sound like this:

Based on the most recent meeting of the board of housing quality appeals, it looks like the board has some concerns about Apartment Complex XYZ coming into compliance with rental inspection code. The administration is encouraging the board to extend the deadline for compliance. The next meeting of the board is on Thursday, and I think it might be one of interest to the broader community.

Or when the council appoints one of its members to be present at collective bargaining negotiations, a bare bones briefing during a council meeting’s report time might sound like this:

The administration and the police union have continued to meet on the next collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expires at the end of this year. The most recent meeting was last Tuesday—that was the seventh one so far since the talks started late last year. Two future meetings are on the calendar, for Tuesday next week and Thursday the following week.

Or if a councilmember has lobbied the mayor on a particular topic, council meeting report time would be a great chance to daylight that. Here’s what that might sound like:

I spoke with the mayor on the phone last week about the $10 million of bonds that are supposed to be issued this year in connection with climate change. I told him I want to see at least $2.5 million of the money allocated for additional sidewalk or path connections. This is a point of discussion that I think we should put on a work session agenda this month.

To be clear, everything in those blocks of text above is just hypothetical. It’s meant to illustrate the kind of succinct bits of news that I think the city council is already set up to deliver to the public in some kind of civic journalism function.

The time constraint for council report time is 20 minutes total. That would allow for 2 minutes of civic news reported by each of the nine councilmembers, with 2 minutes left over.

Of course, there’s no legal requirements about the way city councilmembers use their meeting report time. Still, I think the quality of their reports is a fair data point to throw into the mix for measuring a councilmember’s overall performance.

The end of 2022 will mark the end of the third year of this council’s current four-year term. Decisions for incumbents about running for re-election, or for residents about challenging an incumbent, are on the near horizon—sooner than a year from now.

I want to make it easy for anyone to evaluate the quality of each councilmember’s talk during report time. So it is my intent to continue maintenance of a spreadsheet for councilmember report time at least through the rest of 2022.

My own standard of quality will be: Would I hire this councilmember as a news correspondent, based on their reports during council meetings?

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