Column: Quorum issue for Bloomington city council highlights need for objective study of procedures

Attendance at Bloomington city council committee-of-the-whole meetings, chronological from left to right.
Attendance at Bloomington city council work sessions, chronological from left to right.
Percentage of votes at council meetings (regular and special sessions, not including committee-of-the-whole meetings) for which councilmembers were present. For this chart, abstentions are counted as present for the vote.

This past Wednesday, Bloomington’s city council failed to achieve a quorum for its committee-of-the-whole meeting.

For the nine-member council, a quorum is five. But only four councilmembers showed up: Susan Sandberg, Jim Sims, Dave Rollo, and Ron Smith.

In practical terms, the lack of a quorum just meant that the four councilmembers could not take an advisory vote on the one agenda item, which was the historic designation of the Bethel AME church.

The four councilmembers still heard the presentation from the city’s historic preservation program manager, and comments from the public.

The lack of quorum did not mean the church’s historic designation was delayed. That item will still appear on the city council’s Wednesday, Aug. 17 agenda, but without a committee recommendation.

But as Wednesday’s gathering was wrapping up, councilmember Jim Sims remarked on the lack of quorum.

He started by noting who else was in the room: “I probably shouldn’t say anything, but I just got to say, we’ve got people from the public that have come here to share their voices, staff that is here to make a presentation. We’ve got a couple of historic preservation commissioners here.”

Sims added: “I personally think it’s a bit of a disservice that we don’t have at least five people here on this council as a quorum to conduct proper business.”

Sims was right to say something. But I think it’s time for the city council to do something.

I think the council should ask mayor John Hamilton’s administration for an allocation in the 2023 budget that would be enough to contract for an outside expert to study what’s good and bad about the council’s meeting procedures, and to make corresponding recommendations for revisions to the city code.

The city council’s meeting procedures and process have needed a comprehensive overhaul for a long time.

What makes now a good time to reflect on the city council’s legislative process?  For one thing, Wednesday’s failure to achieve a quorum marked the council’s first such failure in nearly two decades or longer. That’s according to councilmember Dave Rollo, whose service on the city council began almost 20 years ago—in 2003, when he was caucused in to fill a vacancy.

I was not able to find anything in the city council records, or in the Herald Times archive through the Monroe County Public Library, that contradicts Rollo’s recollection.

The charts included with this column show clearly that attendance at regular or special meetings is pretty solid—better than 90 percent for every councilmember, as measured by roll call votes. Ron Smith has attended all of the 832 roll call votes since Jan. 1, 2020 that have been recorded by The B Square.

But attendance at committee-of-the-whole meetings is more uneven across councilmembers. And attendance at work sessions is pretty weak—four councilmembers are at less than 60 percent.

As a category of meeting, the city council formally devalued work sessions. with an ordinance that it passed in 2013. The ordinance explicitly states that work sessions don’t require a quorum of members, given that no action is taken by the council at such sessions.

What I think is needed is an overhaul of meeting processes and procedures that causes every councilmember to place high value on attendance at every meeting on the calendar—regular meetings, committee meetings and work sessions alike.

The current edition of the council has proven that it is not capable of undertaking that kind of badly needed overhaul. That’s why I think the council should consider paying a modest sum to an outside expert who can do the work.

The council’s work on the topic was supposed to start in summer 2019, with the appointment of a rules committee. But that never got off the ground.

The current edition of the council was seated in 2020 and could have taken on the topic in a collaborative way. But two and a half years later, the current council’s record is one of bitter battles over the reform of meeting processes. Wednesday’s excessive absences appear to be caused at least in part by lingering wounds from the conflict.

The battle lines were drawn between two alternatives. One option was to use smaller, four-member specialized committees to review pending legislation or to study specific topics. The other option was to stick with the council’s committee of the whole as the procedural mechanism for legislative review.

Those are by no means the only two approaches to the question. But the council divided itself into two camps over that issue, with Sue Sgambelluri somewhere in the middle. The four-to-four split for other councilmembers breaks down like this:

Group 1: Ron Smith, Dave Rollo, Susan Sandberg, and Jim Sims.
Group 2: Kate Rosenbarger, Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Steve Volan, and Matt Flaherty.

It’s Group 1 that was in favor of sticking with the committee of the whole. So it’s no surprise that it was just Group 1 who attended Wednesday’s meeting, and that it was Group 2 that did not attend.

Sgambelluri’s miss on Wednesday was her first absence out of 28 committee-of-the-whole meetings, which works out to 96-percent attendance.

But based on the city council’s records, three of the other four absentees have attended no more than three-quarters of such meetings: Steve Volan (64 percent); Kate Rosenbarger (71 percent); and Matt Flaherty (75 percent).

Isabel Piedmont-Smith was the fourth absentee on Wednesday. She has attended about 90 percent of committee-of-the-whole meetings. That’s three misses. Rollo and Sims have attended 93 percent each—one miss fewer than Piedmont-Smith.

Sandberg and Smith have not missed a committee-of-the-whole meeting.

The attendance for Group 2 has trended towards more frequent absences since the start of this year.

That can be traced at least in part to the city council’s Jan. 19 meeting. By a 5–4 vote, the council eliminated most of the standing committees that had been established in early 2020, when Volan was council president.

It was the same 5–4 split that had, a couple of weeks earlier, put Sandberg in the council president’s chair instead of Matt Flaherty. The minority was made up of Flaherty, Piedmont-Smith, Rosenbarger, and Volan.

At the Jan. 19 meeting, Volan foreshadowed the possibility he would not be attending future meetings of the committee of the whole: “I have more to say. But obviously, my opinion is not valued. So I wonder why it is that the majority wants me to even show up to the committee of the whole.” So far this year, the council’s meeting records show that Volan’s record of non-attendance at committee-of-the-whole meetings is perfect.

Now is a perfect moment to ensure that some small amount of money is allocated in the council’s 2023 budget for an outside expert to evaluate the council’s meeting processes and make recommendations for revisions.

That’s because the council’s departmental budget presentations are coming up in about two weeks. They’re scheduled for the four evenings from Aug. 29 through Sept. 1.

6 thoughts on “Column: Quorum issue for Bloomington city council highlights need for objective study of procedures

  1. So instead of representing his constituents in the current democratically selected committee process and thus be better informed as a member of the council, Volan petulantly disrespects his constituents, his colleagues, the citizen presenters, and the staff to demonstrate his displeasure at not getting his way.

    1. Agreed. How could you expect to be paid, when you miss this many scheduled meetings?

    2. if the committee of the whole meetings are pointless, then what is the point of showing up?

    1. Volan was paid $19,306 in 2020. It seems unlikely that city council members are motivated by cash.

  2. This is a petulant and petty boycott of a process that worked well for over 30 years. Council tried the alternative subcommittee process and it was a problem for many reasons. All council members hearing issues twice at regular sessions serves the public. Public was often confused by meeting times and a small group of CMs with special interests in their specific subcommittee would often not bring objective reports to a full council who only heard this issue on the day of the vote.

Comments are closed.