A special committee on city council processes is set to meet at 3 p.m. on Monday in the McCloskey Room of Bloomington’s city hall.
The committee will be continuing its deliberations on a recommendation to the full council about how to proceed with councilmember Dave Rollo’s motion, made at the council’s Feb. 1 meeting, to remove Greg Alexander from the city’s traffic commission.
Rollo wants to remove Alexander for the cause of “posting obscene and inappropriate statements” on Twitter.
Positions on the traffic commission are unpaid. The city’s traffic commission is an advisory board that, among other things, recommends to the city council and other city officials ways to improve traffic conditions and the enforcement of traffic regulations.
It might seem like a subtle point, but the question of Alexander’s removal is actually extra work the council has created for itself.
The extra work, which the committee is supposed to start, includes sorting out what can count as a cause for removal. At its first meeting, 10 days ago, the committee sketched out the parameters of its work.
The city council’s process for making appointments to boards and commissions is arguably defective—an alternative is proposed as a way to to wrap up this column. But even a defective process could work, if the basics are executed.
The extra work now faced by the council, as well as the extra drain on the public’s energy, could have been avoided if councilmembers had simply executed parliamentary procedures made possible by the existing process for making appointments to boards and commissions.
The question of Alexander’s appointment was put in front of the council on Jan. 18, along with a raft of other appointments.
On Jan. 18, it was on behalf of a council committee in charge of making recommendations on a specific set of boards and commissions (Interview Committee B) that Matt Flaherty made the motion to re-appoint Alexander to the traffic commission.
Interview Committee B had met just an hour before the council’s regular meeting, to consider and adopt its recommendations on board and commission appointments.
As Flaherty read them aloud, other councilmembers who aren’t members of that committee, were hearing the names for the first time. That’s the customary process. The names of appointees nominated by the council’s different interview committees are not typically conveyed to other councilmembers, let alone to the public, before they are read aloud at a meeting.
It’s a process that arguably lacks transparency. But it’s possible to inject at least a bit of transparency into an opaque process, if councilmembers would remember the rudiments of parliamentary procedure. Unfortunately, at their Jan. 18 meeting, councilmembers all across the dais failed to take advantage of some procedural basics.
Dave Rollo and Susan Sandberg were aware of Alexander’s posts on Twitter, and did not want to see him re-appointed to the traffic commission.
So on Jan. 18, Rollo voted no on the whole set of appointments. Sandberg abstained. During the meeting, neither offered an explanation for their votes. For most observers, their choice not to support the whole set of nominations will have been a mystery.
Neither Sandberg nor Rollo said anything during the Jan. 18 meeting about the fact that it was Alexander specifically to whom they objected.
Even if Sandberg and Rollo were taken off guard by Alexander’s nomination—because they weren’t necessarily expecting to hear his name read aloud by Flaherty that night—they could have done better than abstaining or voting no.
On hearing Alexander’s name, if they had wanted to vote on his appointment separately, they could have asked that the question be divided—separating Alexander from the other nominees. It’s rudimentary parliamentary procedure that two councilmembers with a combined 37 years of council service should have had the wherewithal to execute.
And if they were taken so off guard that they forgot it was possible to divide the question, Flaherty had provided a reminder, by asking if the council wanted to consider the names separately or as a group.
Then, when Sandberg abstained, any other councilmember had the option under local code to insist that Sandberg either vote, or else explain why she was abstaining.
None of Sandberg’s city council colleagues chose to hold her accountable for the abstention.
Rollo could have been held accountable for his unexplained vote against the whole set of appointees, through a simple motion to reconsider the question..
Anyone who voted yes on the appointments could have made a motion to reconsider the question. On reconsideration, the reason for Rollo’s objection could have been drawn out during deliberations.
If Rollo and Sandberg’s concerns had been made plain on Jan. 18, the council could have considered Alexander’s social media posts in the context of a re-appointment, instead of the more dramatic removal. Or, the council could have conceivably postponed the question of Alexander’s re-appointment.
In any case, the council could have spared itself the work it now faces, of creating a protocol for removing a board or commission member.
Every councilmember present on Jan. 18—that’s everyone except Jim Sims—shares in the blame for the extra work and the drain on the public’s energy caused by the failure that night to consider Alexander’s re-appointment separately from the rest.
What would a better process look like?
The city council and the public would benefit from a process that makes the names of board and commission nominees available for public scrutiny for at least the time between one council meeting and the next. That is, the process could mimic the first-reading and second reading process that’s used for ordinances.
The use of a committee to make recommendations should also be re-thought. Theoretically, there’s a certain benefit to the transparency that comes with a committee. But as a practical matter, it’s a significant challenge for the public to track exactly which committees are meeting when, to discuss specific appointments to boards and commissions and to interview potential appointees.
While three or four heads might generally be better than one, if the one head has familiarity with the actual work done by a board or commission, a better result might be delivered by the one.
Here’s an outline for a possible way to incorporate these considerations:
Proposed board/commission appointment process for city council
- Establish liaisons. For each board or commission to which the city council makes an appointment, establish one city council liaison to that board or commission. The liaison’s job would be to keep track of what the board or commission is doing. That could be done by attending meetings, watching recordings, or reading minutes. The liaison could use report time during regular meetings to update council colleagues and the public about that board or commission’s work.
- Liaisons make nominations. Instead of relying on a committee of any kind to nominate appointees to boards and commissions, the council liaison to the board or commission would have the duty to make a nomination to the full council.
- Two-meeting process: Nomination followed by confirmation. The liaison’s board or commission nomination for an appointment would have to be included in a meeting information packet for a council meeting. The nominee’s name would be read aloud at that meeting, but no vote would be taken. At some second council meeting, the name of the nominee would be included as a potential confirmed appointee. The council’s vote on the appointment, that is the confirmation of the nomination, would take place at this second council meeting.