During its meeting last Wednesday, Bloomington’s city council cut off the mic of a public commenter, recessed the meeting, retreated from its chambers to the council’s office suite, then emerged about 10 minutes later to resume the meeting.
When council president Sue Sgambelluri reconvened the meeting, Dareal Ruble was still waiting at the public mic—like he said he would when councilmembers were filing out of the chambers.
What provoked Sgambelluri to take the unusual step of recessing the meeting in the middle of a public commenter’s remarks?
Ruble had offended the council’s convention that speakers at the public mic give their names before starting their commentary.
When the meeting resumed, Sgambelluri restarted the 5-minute clock, and allowed Ruble to complete his commentary without stating his name.
The second time around, Ruble said, “I refuse to state my name. It’s written on the board here.” He added a little later, “I will never bow down to your order, Mrs. Sue, about the name. I’m gonna write it down here [on the sign-in sheet] and that’s the best you’re gonna get.”
That got no reaction from Sgambelluri, because during the recess the issue had apparently been settled in Ruble’s favor.
But in the meantime, three Bloomington police officers, two uniformed and one in plainclothes, had responded to the council’s call for its sergeant-at-arms. Under city code, the council’s sergeant-at-arms is the chief of police or their designee. (Typically, an officer is assigned to council chambers on council meeting nights, but on Wednesday there was no officer present to start the meeting.)
When his second 5-minutes expired, Sgambelluri told Ruble his time was up. Ruble appeared to be gathering up his American flag to depart the public lectern.
But Sgambelluri said, “Will the sergeant-at-arms please remove Mr. Ruble and escort him from the chambers.” She paused more than a full second before adding, “If he declines to leave.”
Ruble, who is a former city employee, left of his own accord.
During his first attempt at public comment, Ruble did not heed Sgambelluri’s request to state his name, which she repeated a half dozen times, over about three minutes—while he recited “I am Your Flag.” That’s a tribute to the American flag by Thomas E. Wicks, Sr.
At one point Sgambelluri turned off Ruble’s mic, which eliminated the amplification of sound in council chambers and cut the audio to the remote Zoom feed. But it did not prevent CATS from recording the sound. In the video excerpt from CATS that embedded below, the cutting of the mic can be discerned at around the 2:21 mark, as the slight echo disappears, but Ruble’s audio remains clear.
When Ruble continued to speak, Sgambelluri recessed the meeting.
The incident arose during the general commentary time that the city council offers at the start and end of every regular meeting. The time is meant for “matters of community concern” that don’t have a related agenda item.
The council’s document that gives guidance on general public comment says:
(3) When giving your report, please state your name for the record and speak directly into the microphone.
During the meeting’s recess, council administrator/attorney Stephen Lucas told Ruble that there was no law that said he had to give his name—the wording of the rule made it a request. So when the meeting resumed, he would not have to give his name, Lucas told Ruble.
When she reconvened the meeting, Sgambelluri gave an implicit signal that she would not continue to insist, but just encourage, that Ruble state his name. She started by saying, “Mr. Ruble, we would encourage you to state your name. You will have five minutes.”
This year, the vice president of the council is Isabel Piedmont-Smith. The council’s parliamentarian is Dave Rollo. But first at the council table to admonish Ruble to state his name was Steve Volan.
Early in Ruble’s first attempt at public commentary, Volan tried to get Sgambelluri to insist that Ruble state his name, and Ruble took notice of the interaction at the council table. Ruble asked, “Are you alright, Steve? Am I interrupting you?”
Volan responded to Ruble, saying, “Mr. Ruble, you need to state your name before you speak, that’s all I was trying to do, is to get you to state your name. I have nothing against you, sir.”
In the past, Volan has been the subject of Ruble’s criticism—for floating the idea of establishing in the Rose Hill Cemetery an encampment for people experiencing homelessness. It was a notion that occurred to Volan during the council’s notorious nine-hour meeting of March 3, 2021.
At last Wednesday’s meeting, it was something more recent that Volan had done, which drew Ruble’s ire.
A month earlier, at the council’s May 17 meeting, Ruble had brought to the public mic a small American flag, which he set on the lectern, with a water bottle as a base. As he departed, he told Sgambelluri he was leaving the flag for her. Sgambelluri told him: “You can keep that with you, please.”
Ruble did not take the flag with him. After Ruble departed from the public lectern, Volan left his seat, took the flag from the spot where Ruble had placed it and put it on the desk where the council staff sits. Volan’s action did not escape Ruble’s notice.
Last Wednesday, a month later, Ruble told the council, “I watched through the window. And this man right here, Steve Volan, come up here, run from behind his thing, and grabbed that flag, man.”
Last Wednesday, Ruble asked Volan what he did with the flag. Ruble said that when Volan took the flag from the public lectern, “That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen you move, Steve, in your whole life…”
In the past, Volan has made a point of insisting that public speakers refer to councilmembers with a formal title. Last Wednesday, that was not a topic Volan pursued.
But when Ruble referred to Sgambelluri as “Sue,” she objected, saying that he should address her as “Madam Chair” or “Councilmember Sgambelluri.”
The way public commentary is handled at Bloomington city council meetings is a topic that could be taken up by a special committee that Sgambelluri appointed at the start of the year. The scope of the committee’s work is supposed to include meeting procedures.
But the scope of the committee’s work also includes the reform of boards and commissions.
The special committee on council processes, which is chaired by Matt Flaherty, has settled on boards and commission reform as its first area of focus. Other members include Sgambelluri, Piedmont-Smith, and Volan. Rollo was appointed to serve on the committee. But Rollo resigned and was replaced by Volan.
The council’s special committee on processes does not have a next meeting scheduled on its calendar.
In the council’s archives, there’s documentation of a 2010 rules committee that reviewed the public commentary procedures for council meetings. The committee reported its work to the council on Aug. 4, 2010. [Aug 4, 2010 meeting minutes] [Aug. 4 2010 meeting information packet]
The current procedures for general public commentary look like those adopted in 2010. The B Square was not able to identify a more recent revision.
While Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL) requires a public body like a city council to offer public access to its meetings, there’s no legal requirement that a chance for public comment be offered
Sometimes a council meeting agenda item entails a public hearing—like the adoption of the annual budget. On those occasions members of the public have to be given a turn at the mic.
Video: Dareal Ruble public comment (June 21, 2023)