Possible reform of Bloomington boards, commissions gets study by city council committee

Clockwise around the table from right: City councilmembers Matt Flaherty and Isabel Piedmont-Smith; city of Bloomington public engagement director Kaisa Goodman; city council deputy attorney Ash Kulak; and city councilmember Sue Sgambelluri. On screen in the upper left of the frame is Bloomington city clerk Nicole Bolden. he meeting took place in the city council’s “library” room. (May 25, 2023)

On Thursday night, a special city council committee met to move ahead with a closer look at reforming various processes related to Bloomington’s boards and commissions.

Also up for consideration by the four-member committee are possible recommendations on merging some of the city’s roughly 50 boards and commissions.

The committee is hoping to wrap up its work on board and commission reform by the end of the year.

The committee was appointed by council president Sue Sgambelluri at the council’s first meeting of the year. It was the same meeting when she was elected by her colleagues as this year’s council president.

In addition to Matt Flaherty as chair of the committee, Sgambelluri appointed as members the three officers of the council—including herself (president), Isabel Piedmont-Smith (vice president) and Dave Rollo (parliamentarian). Rollo did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

Thursday’s meeting of the committee was the second one that has been held, based on Sgambelluri’s original appointments and assigned scope of work.

At its first such meeting, held on May 4, the committee reviewed three other possible areas of initial focus: updates to meeting procedures; improvements to public engagement; and options to integrate equity into the legislative process. The other three areas are still eventually supposed to get some attention from the committee. But boards and commissions are first up as an area of focus.

Earlier in the year, in February, three committee meetings were held to handle a specific matter that the full council had referred to the committee. That was a question about a traffic commissioner’s potential removal, because of posts he had made on social media.

The episode involving the traffic commissioner got a bit of airtime at Thursday’s meeting, when Natalia Galvan weighed in during public commentary. She asked that local code be revised to include the following sentence: “Board and commission members that are appointed by city council, serve at the pleasure of city council and may be removed by a majority vote of the city council.”

One of the starting points for the committee’s current round of deliberations is a report by The Novak Consulting Group, which was presented publicly about a year and a half ago.

On Thursday, the first three of the 10 recommendations in the Novak report got an initial read-through by the committee:

1. Merge the commission on sustainability and the environmental commission.
2. Merge the parking commission, traffic commission, and bicycle and pedestrian safety commission.
3. Consolidate park-, recreation- and urban forestry-related commissions under the board of park commissioners.

The idea of merging the commission on sustainability and the environmental commission got some pushback from Piedmont-Smith and Flaherty, as well as sustainability commissioner David Maenner, who weighed in during public comment.

Maenner said he wanted to draw a line between the environmental commission and the commission on sustainability. The commission on sustainability is commonly called BCOS, (pronounced “bee-coss”) which is the complete acronym after prefixing the word Bloomington.

Maenner said, “BCOS has recently…adopted the UN’s 17 sustainable goals—four of those are related to the environment. The other 13 cover a very wide range of things.” He continued, saying that there’s a misconception that environmental and sustainable concerns are the same thing. Maenner said, “We are working on communicating that they are not [the same], even though environmental is a part of sustainability.”

During public commentary time at the committee’s May 4 meeting, councilmember Steve Volan had spoken against the idea of merging the parking commission with other commissions. It was Volan who had pushed for the creation of the parking commission by the city council in 2016. Bloomington mayor John Hamilton vetoed the ordinance creating the parking commission, but that veto was overridden by the council.

Before taking a first look at the recommendations in the Novak report, on Thursday the committee discussed goals of boards and commissions generally, which included:

  • Improve public policy through the work of boards and commissions.
  • Empower and value residents who serve on boards and commissions.
  • Enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion goals by increasing the number and diversity of applicants for boards and commissions.
  • Increase operational and fiscal efficiency.
  • Enhance resident education.
  • Ensure that boards and commissions feel their contributions are meaningful.
  • Establish clarity regarding the responsibilities and limitations of boards and commissions.
  • Promote consistency in the formalization of board and commission practices.
  • Foster better collaboration between different boards and commissions.
  • Encourage collaboration between the city and county.
  • Adhere to laws and best practices to maintain consistency and effectiveness.

Also discussed by the committee on Thursday was the set of stakeholders affected by changes to board and commission appointments including: prospective members; community advocacy groups; council office staff; mayor’s office staff; clerk’s staff; staff liaisons to boards and commissions; board and commission members (current and past); and the general public.

During the time allowed for public comment The B Square asked that consideration be given to adding “the press” to the list. Flaherty appeared amenable to adding “the press” to the list of stakeholders.

The regular meeting schedule for the committee was settled as the first and fourth Thursday of the month. That means the next meeting is set for June 1. But based on discussion Thursday night, achieving a quorum next week could be a challenge.

But for now, the committee has left the June 1 meeting on its calendar.

3 thoughts on “Possible reform of Bloomington boards, commissions gets study by city council committee

  1. as an advocate and a commissioner, i don’t really know what boards and commissions should look like. i have been generally in favor of merging commissions. in the past, i thought it was a good idea to merge traffic, parking, and bike ped safety. but now i don’t know.

    the thing is, the single problem with commissions, the reason they don’t get enough volunteers to fill any commission, the reason there’s huge turnover, poor attendance, almost no public involvement, an unrewarding drag on staff time, is that the commissions simply don’t get anything done.

    and i know that’s a dim view, i can definitely point to lists of things commissions have done. but fundamentally if you are there to change things, a commission is a pretty discouraging thing to witness 90% of the time. i’ve seen so many bodies form and meet monthly for a year or more and come away with nothing but a set of recommendations that weren’t followed. if we can fix that problem, then i think we’ll see enough engagement that it seems like a no-brainer to have “too many” commissions. if we can’t fix that problem, i don’t know, maybe it should just be managed as if it was a pointless drain on resources to have overlapping commission responsibilities. i don’t know.

    i do know i’ve gone and personally seen the same staff member deliver roughly the same presentation three times to three different bodies.

    1. oh and i’ve seen members of the public deliver roughly the same presentation three times to three different bodies.

  2. I hope they will look at outreach and recruitment, which has always been the most difficult aspect of successful boards and commissions. Outreach to those who aren’t involved with other organizations and those not already engaged are a great untapped source.

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