Four weeks ago, Bloomington’s city council delayed a vote on the question of removing Greg Alexander from the traffic commission—by referring the matter to an already established committee on council processes.
In the meantime, that committee has met three times.
This Wednesday, the question of Alexander’s removal from the traffic commission will again be put in front of the council, but this time with a recommendation from the committee.
The original motion, made by Dave Rollo at the council’s Feb. 1 meeting, described the cause for removal as “…posting obscene and inappropriate statements…” on social media.
The committee’s recommendation is neither in favor or against Alexander’s removal.
If the full council follows the committee’s recommendation, it seems unlikely the question will get decided this Wednesday.
After weighing a recent court case, and considerations of what can count as a cause for removal, due process, and First Amendment questions, the committee’s recommendation is for the motion to be withdrawn.
But the committee’s general recommendation has left the door open for a modified motion on Alexander’s removal. The committee has made three suggestions about a new motion, if some councilmember wants to put one forward.
One suggestion is to allow five business days for Alexander to respond to the new motion, which is supposed to include allegations that are more specific than the original one, along with a proposed basis for his removal from the traffic commission.
Hewing to the suggestion of the committee to allow five business days for a written response would mean delaying a vote until at least the council’s next regular meeting, which is set for March 8.
Greater specificity in the allegations is another one of the three separate suggestions for a new motion. Discussed during committee meetings was the idea of listing out the specific Tweets that Alexander has posted, if they are supposed to be considered as part of the cause for removal.
Also discussed during committee meetings was whether two hand-written letters that Alexander sent are supposed to be considered as part of the cause for removal. If the intent is for councilmembers to weigh the letters that Alexander sent, then the consensus on the committee appeared to be that the letters should be mentioned specifically.
More detail on the social media posts and the letters is included in previous B Square coverage: “Bloomington city council wants research on possible ouster of traffic commissioner for social media posts”
A final suggestion made by the committee about a possible new motion on removal is that it should “clarify the relevance of and logical connection between the named conduct and how, specifically, those acts or omissions have diminished the appointee’s ability or fitness to perform the duties of the appointment.”
The committee’s recommendation is already incorporated into the March 1 meeting information packet.
A full committee report, providing the rationale for the recommendation, is supposed to be provided in a packet addendum between now and the time of Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. meeting. [Added at 12:19 p.m. on March 1, 2023: Link to packet addendum with committee report.]
It’s also possible that the text of a revised motion on Alexander’s removal will be included in a meeting information packet addendum. [Added at 5:54 pm. on March 1, 2023: Link to potential revised motion.]
The four-member committee on council processes is chaired by Matt Flaherty. Other members are the three council officers: Sue Sgambelluri (president); Isabel Piedmont-Smith (vice president); and Dave Rollo (parliamentarian).
Rollo did not participate in the committee’s deliberations, to avoid any implication that Rollo would not be fair, based on any perceived personal animus between him and Alexander.
The council’s administrator/attorney, Stephen Lucas, gave advice to the committee during their three meetings. Based on the advice Lucas gave, the key question to be weighed is how Alexander’s alleged conduct factors into his ability to serve on the traffic commission.
The 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.
At the committee’s Feb. 20 meeting, Lucas responded to questions from councilmembers Sue Sgambelluri and Isabel Piedmont-Smith about impartiality or bias against a particular neighborhood of the city, namely Elm Heights, as the possible basis for Alexander’s removal.
One Tweet that has been cited as supporting the idea that Alexander has a bias against the Elm Heights neighborhood was posted on Nov. 3, 2022:
roughly half of the sidewalk committee budget in the past 15 years was spent in rollo’s district. with all due respect, taking things away from elm heights *IS* exactly how the rest of the city gets help. where have you been?
In responding to committee questions about impartiality or bias, Lucas consistently grounded his answers in the idea that whatever reason the councilmembers give as the cause for Alexander’s removal, it should be based on the way Alexander’s alleged conduct impacts his ability to fulfill the duties of a traffic commissioner.
Lucas cited the duties verbatim from Bloomington’s municipal code [BMC 2.12.070]:
BMC 2.12.070 Traffic commission
(1) Purpose—Duties. It shall be the duty of the commission, and to this end it shall have the authority within the limits of the funds at its disposal, to coordinate traffic activities, to carry on educational activities in traffic matters, to supervise the preparation and publication of traffic reports, to receive complaints having to do with traffic matters, and to recommend to the common council and to appropriate city officials ways and means for improving traffic conditions and the administration and enforcement of traffic regulations.
The issue on which the council’s decision could eventually turn is the question of geographic bias—the idea that Alexander allegedly has a geographic bias that prevents him from fulfilling the duties of a traffic commissioner.
The six traffic commissioners who are appointed by the city council are supposed to be chosen with a “preference being given so that each [city council] district is represented.” But they don’t have to be appointed in a way that puts one traffic commissioner in each council district.
At the Feb. 20 committee meeting, councilmember Steve Volan weighed in during public commentary against the idea that bias against some area of the city, and for one’s own neighborhood, was disqualifying for service on the traffic commission.
Volan compared service on the traffic commission to service on the city council: “Each of us are representing places based on where we live. If we did not have a bias for our districts, would we even be doing our jobs?”
The court case considered by the committee, to inform its deliberations, was from just a year ago in Madison, Indiana. [Waller versus City of Madison]
In the Waller case, the Indiana court of appeals reversed the lower court’s decision that had found that an appointee had been legally removed from his service on the city plan commission and the board of zoning appeals, after a heated exchange between the mayor and Waller.
The court of appeals ordered the trial court to review the case and to apply the Pickering test to determine if Waller had a First Amendment claim. The test comes from a 1968 US Supreme Court case. [Pickering v. Board of Education]
The first part of the Pickering test is a threshold question of whether the person is speaking on a matter of public importance about which free and open debate is vital to the decision making of the community.
In the second part of the Pickering test, a balance has to be weighed between the interests of the person who was speaking, as a citizen, in commenting on matters of public concern when compared to the government’s interest in running an efficient operation.
Finally, the person’s protected speech has to be a motivating factor for the person’s removal from office.
In the Waller case, after reconsidering the matter, as ordered by the court of appeals, the judge concluded that Waller’s First Amendment rights had been violated and ordered that he be restored to the plan commission and the board of zoning appeals.
The next meeting of Bloomington’s traffic commission is set for March 22. The January and February meetings were canceled.