Column: How will Bloomington’s 2024 city council build its meeting agendas?

It is sometimes useful to contrast Indiana’s General Assembly with a local city council, even though there are obvious differences.

This image was created by Bing AI. It does not do a great job at spelling. Or counting. There are supposed to be nine councilmembers in this image.

What they have in common is the fact that they are the legislative branch for their respective levels of government.

At Saturday’s 2023 Indiana NOW State Conference, state senator Shelli Yoder talked about the fact that during the 2024 legislative session, each senator will be allowed to put forward just five bills.

The limit on the number of bills is determined by the majority party, which is now the Republican Party.

Yoder is a Democrat. She said that when she first started serving in the senate the limit was 15, but has been ratched downward.

What’s the lay of the local legislative land? The group of nine councilmembers who will be sworn in on Jan. 1, 2024 are all Democrats. It has been an all-Democrat council  since 2012.

How many pieces of legislation is a Bloomington city councilmember allowed to put forward in a given year?

Answer: There is no limit reflected in city code, or other bylaws or rules, on the number of resolutions or ordinances that a Bloomington city councilmember can propose.

On the one hand, that seems like a great setup—especially for any of the incoming five new city councilmembers. They might have some specific pieces of legislation they are eager to introduce as soon as possible.

On the other hand, there is no formal mechanism for a councilmember to exercise a right to place an item on a meeting agenda.

The city council’s custom has been to allow the council president to exercise authority over the content of the meeting agendas. That’s based on one line of city code that has, over the decades, likely been given an incorrect analysis.

Here’s what the city code says:

The president shall approve the agendas for regular sessions, special sessions called by the president or voted upon by the council, and committees convened to consider legislation referred to them…

This part of the city code has been understood historically to mean that meeting agendas are subject to the approval of the council president. But that’s not what the words in the city code say.

If the authors of the city code had wanted to make city council meeting agendas subject to approval by the city council president, they could have written the code to reflect that. They could have literally written it like this: “The meeting agendas of the city council shall be subject to approval by the city council president.” They did not write it like that.

Instead, the words in the city code make the council president’s approval a mere ministerial function. There’s no discretion for the president to exercise.

Why does the code require the president to approve meeting agendas? It’s because the president has to preside over the meeting. So it is a matter of practical utility for the president to know what is on the agenda for the meeting over which they are to preside.

Even if the city code indicates that once a meeting agenda has been assembled, the council president has an obligation to approve it, the city code leaves as a mystery how it gets built in the first place.

A good way to approach this would be for the city council of 2024 to adopt written answers to these questions:

1. Who has the right to place an item on a city council agenda? (Who has agenda rights?)
One possible answer: The right to place an item on a city council agenda is extended to individual city councilmembers, city council staff, the city clerk, the mayor and city department heads.

2. What are the procedural requirements for someone with agenda rights to place an item on a city council agenda?
One possible answer: If a piece of legislation, together with all supporting material, is submitted to the city council office staff no later than 10 days before the start of a given council meeting, then the legislation shall be placed by the council office staff on the appropriate section of the council meeting agenda, sorted by the order in which it was received.

Those answers could be adopted as a part of the city code, or simply adopted as rules for the council in a resolution.

There’s plenty of room for discussion about what the answers to those questions should be. For example, maybe the procedural requirements should be different for councilmembers compared to members of the administration.

But it’s important that the council adopt some explicit written rules for placing items on a meeting agenda.

Right now, Bloomington city councilmembers are even worse off than their state senate counterparts, who are limited to filing just five bills per legislative session. At least a state senator can file the five bills, and they will show up on the list of introduced bills. The fact that no action ever gets taken on those five bills becomes a matter of written public record.

For a Bloomington city councilmember, there is in principle no limit to the number of ordinances or resolutions they can introduce. But those items can, if only by custom, be kept off the agenda by the council president.

The city council of 2024 should make a clean break with that custom.