Column: Judge rules Bloomington plan commission violated Open Door Law, second lawsuit now filed

In a ruling issued on June 1, Monroe County circuit court judge Catherine Stafford found that Bloomington’s plan commission violated Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL) with its March 14, 2022 meeting.

Photo of plan commission in-person meeting with numbers 1 to 4 labeling the members who are physically present
This photo shows the plan commissioners who were physically present at the March 14, 2022 gathering. The graphics for the numbers have been added.

The allegation that the meeting violated the electronic meetings section of the ODL was made in a lawsuit that I filed a week after it took place.

The electronic meetings section of the ODL requires that at least 50 percent of the plan commissioners have to be physically present at the meeting. That works out to at least five of nine plan commissioners.

At the March 14 meeting, six of nine attended, but just four plan commissioners were physically present. The other two participated remotely.

Bloomington’s city attorney Mike Rouker tried to argue that the 50-percent is supposed to be calculated based on the number of plan commissioners present at the meeting, not the number of seated plan commissioners. Rouker’s attempted argument was counter to the widely disseminated guidance on the relatively new section of the ODL, which was provided last year by Indiana’s public access counselor.

However, the judge stopped short of granting all of the requested relief—which was to void the decisions made at the March 14 meeting. That would have forced the plan commission to reconsider all of the business that it transacted at the meeting.

Still, the plan commission has now reconsidered one of the votes that was taken at the March 14 meeting. Continue reading “Column: Judge rules Bloomington plan commission violated Open Door Law, second lawsuit now filed”

Opinion: Bloomington’s plan commission violated Indiana’s Open Door Law, so I filed a lawsuit

The B Square’s report on the plan commission’s meeting last week was headlined with a question: Did Bloomington plan commission meeting follow state law on electronic meetings?

After talking to a half dozen different experts on Indiana’s Open Door Law, I think the answer to the headline’s question is: No.

That is, Bloomington’s plan commission violated the Open Door Law with its March 14, 2022 gathering, which was conducted on a hybrid in-person-electronic platform. Four plan commissioners were physically present. Two participated through a Zoom video-conference interface. And three were absent. Continue reading “Opinion: Bloomington’s plan commission violated Indiana’s Open Door Law, so I filed a lawsuit”

Did Bloomington plan commission meeting follow state law on electronic meetings?

Monday’s regular meeting of Bloomington’s plan commission was the first one since Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s emergency health order was lifted.

The plan commission’s meeting was conducted on a hybrid in-person-electronic platform.

Just four commissioners attended in person, out of nine voting members. Two participated via Zoom video conference.

Four out of nine is 44.4 percent, which is less than the 50 percent required to be physically present at a hybrid meeting—under an amendment to the Open Door Law (ODL) made by the state legislature in 2021.

For insight on the question of the plan commission’s possible violation of the ODL, The B Square has reached out to city attorney Mike Rouker, who attended Monday’s plan commission meeting.

The change to the ODL in 2021 recognized the benefit of allowing some members of a public body to participate remotely, based on experience with such meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.  But the legislature restricted remote participation in several ways.

One example of a restriction on hybrid meetings, which was observed by Bloomington plan commissioners on Monday night, is the requirement that votes have to be taken by a roll call.

Another requirement is that at least half the members of the governing body must be physically present.

That’s a requirement that does not seem to have been met. Continue reading “Did Bloomington plan commission meeting follow state law on electronic meetings?”

Complaint filed: City’s plan commission violated Open Door Law, says Bloomington resident

In a formal complaint filed with Indiana’s public access counselor (PAC) on Friday, Bloomington resident Andrew Guenther has alleged that the city’s plan commission violated Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL) when it held a lunch session on Feb. 8.

The apparent purpose of the Feb. 8 meeting, and others like it in the past, was to give plan commissioners a preview of cases that would be appearing on the next month’s regular meeting agenda.

Guenther’s specific complaint is that no notice of the lunchtime meeting was given to the public as required under the ODL.

Guenther’s conclusion that the plan commission posted no public notice of the Feb. 8 meeting, as required under the ODL, is based on the fact the city of Bloomington has not provided a copy of the public notice, in response to a records request he made under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act on Feb. 16.

The formal complaint filed with the PAC alleges similar violations of the ODL, on a monthly basis, for the last four years. During that period, the plan commission allegedly met on the day after a regular monthly meeting to preview upcoming petitions, without posting required notice. Continue reading “Complaint filed: City’s plan commission violated Open Door Law, says Bloomington resident”

Election board says yes to former NAPA building for some functions, details like security to follow

At a joint meeting of the Monroe County election board and county commissioners on Monday, election board members voted 3-0 to accept the use of the former NAPA auto parts building at 3rd and Walnut streets for some election functions.

The motion also included the acceptance of the north end of the Showers building on Morton Street for possible election division use.

The specific uses that will be made of the respective spaces have not yet been nailed down. Of the two buildings, the more likely to be established as an early voting satellite location is the former NAPA building.

In order to establish it as an early voting satellite location, the election board would need to approve a resolution on that question early next year.

Approving such a resolution now would not have any meaningful impact. That’s because under state law, such a resolution is effective only through the calendar year in which it is approved by the election board.

The election division will also continue to occupy its current space in the first floor of the old Johnson Hardware building at Monroe and 7th Streets, aka Election Central.

Continue reading “Election board says yes to former NAPA building for some functions, details like security to follow”

School files lawsuit against Monroe County over pandemic mask mandate citation

Seven Oaks Classical School is again challenging its citation for violation of the county’s indoor mask mandate, which is connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This time the challenge comes in papers filed with the Monroe County circuit court.

The county has enacted a mask regulation to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In August, the school was cited by the county for violation of the mask mandate and fined $250.

After hearing the school’s appeal, commissioners upheld the citation, but waived the fine.

In the action now filed with the circuit court, Seven Oaks is challenging the denial of its appeal.

The court challenge is based on three separate allegations, one of them that Monroe County commissioners violated Indiana’s Open Door Law. Continue reading “School files lawsuit against Monroe County over pandemic mask mandate citation”

Annexation update: Electronic access at city hall for public hearing, city releases waiver data, Area 7 likely out

In a news release issued on Monday, the city of Bloomington announced that it will provide electronic access at city hall to a public hearing on annexation that is being continued this week on Wednesday starting at 6 p.m.

The city has also released its data on annexation remonstrance waiver dates, in response to a records request from The B Square, made under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act.

[Updated at 4:59 p.m. on Aug. 10: The mayor’s office has issued a news release recommending the removal of Area 7 from the proposed annexations. Area 7 is the northernmost of the eight areas proposed for annexation. Area 7 had already received three city councilmember votes in opposition, when the annexation ordinances were amended in mid-May to update them from the 2017 process.]

[Updated at 4:07 p.m. on Aug. 11: Van Buren Township office will be open at 5:30 p.m., if anyone would like to comment to the Bloomington city council, according to township trustee Rita Barrow. The office is now located across the road from the fire station in a white building. 2123 S Kirby Rd. 812-825-4490]

The continued public hearing this week will be convened on the Zoom video-conferencing platform.

According to Monday’s news release, computers at city hall will be available for use by residents who are “interested in watching or participating in the meeting who might otherwise be without internet capability.”

The news release continues, “City staff will also provide guidance to those who join the meeting at city hall about using online tools to make a comment during the public hearing.”

According to the news release, “Visitors may use computers set up in the city hall atrium, or watch the meeting on monitors in the adjacent council chambers.”

The electronic access provided by the city for this Wednesday’s continuation of the public hearing could be analyzed as an attempt to address some criticism heard by city officials last week.

That criticism came after the cancelation of the in-person component of last week’s public hearing. City representatives suggested that the public could get access to the electronic meeting by visiting the Monroe County Public Library and using the computing resources there. Continue reading “Annexation update: Electronic access at city hall for public hearing, city releases waiver data, Area 7 likely out”

Extension of governor’s health emergency means Monroe County, Bloomington local government meetings can stay electronic through June

On Friday, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb issued a new emergency health order that extends through June 30 the current one, which was set to expire at the end of May.

Image links to a copy of the May 28 order from Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

That means many local governing bodies in Monroe County and Bloomington will continue for the next month to hold their meetings on a video-conference platform, instead of in person.

That’s allowed, but not required, under the governor’s current emergency health order.

On Friday, president of the board of county commissioners Julie Thomas told The Square Beacon that the regular meetings of the board of commissioners would take place on Zoom through the end of June. But starting in July, meetings of the commissioners will be in-person, with an option for the public to attend on Zoom, Thomas added.

That means the June 2 meeting of the county commissioners will be held on Zoom.

Bloomington city council administrator Stephen Lucas responded to an emailed question about the council’s June 2 meeting, in light of Friday’s extension of the governor’s order, by writing, “I believe the council will continue to meet virtually for the duration of the public health emergency.”

Lucas added, “If [the council] decides to make an in-person option available before the end of the public health emergency, we’ll publicize that fact in the meeting notice and packet that gets sent out.” Continue reading “Extension of governor’s health emergency means Monroe County, Bloomington local government meetings can stay electronic through June”

Monroe County poised for return to in-person government meetings with option for remote participation

Rank-and-file members of the public will be able to participate remotely in future county board meetings, even after pandemic protocols are lifted, and when commissioners start holding in-person meetings.

That was a key takeaway from Wednesday’s Monroe County commissioners meeting.

The current emergency health order from Indiana governor Eric Holcomb, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to expire at the end of May. Local county officials are assuming the order won’t be renewed this time around, as it has been several times before.

The emergency order provided the legal basis for governing bodies, like the Monroe County board of commissioners, to meet with remote participation of members, using video conferencing options like Zoom.

That broad basis for remote participation will end when the governor’s order expires. All other things being equal, that would mean a return to the legal requirements of public meetings in pre-pandemic times, which include an in-person requirement for members of public bodies.

But under a state statute enacted by the state legislature during this year’s session, the members of a governing body can, in a more limited way, still participate in meetings from a distance, by using electronic platforms. [HEA 1437] Continue reading “Monroe County poised for return to in-person government meetings with option for remote participation”

Bloomington neighborhood grant approvals delayed to comply with Indiana’s Open Door Law

On the Bloomington redevelopment commission’s (RDC’s) Monday agenda was an item to approve $27,000 in grant awards to seven different neighborhoods.

The image  is from the header of the online application for this year’s neighborhood improvement grants.

The grants have been made annually since 1998, and can pay for a range of projects: neighborhood entrance signs and street sign toppers; restoration of historic sidewalks; playground equipment; public art installations; and landscaping, among other things.

But at Monday’s meeting, assistant city attorney Larry Allen told the RDC that the item had been pulled from the agenda for that day, after a question from The Square Beacon about compliance with Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL).

RDC is expected to have the recommendations from the neighborhood improvement grant council on its meeting agenda two weeks from now.

On April 19, the neighborhood improvement grant council met to hear pitches from eight different neighborhood groups. That meeting was properly noticed.

However, the grant council held a subsequent meeting, when the members deliberated on and decided their recommendations to the RDC. That meeting was not properly noticed under the ODL, according to Allen.

So the remedy will be to post proper notice, re-hold the meeting, and get the recommendations in front of the RDC in two weeks, Allen said. He said he’d confirmed that the delay would not have a negative impact on any of the proposed projects. “There was some built-in time anyway. And so this allows us just to follow the law like we should,” Allen said.

The recommendations made by the grant council at the un-noticed meeting were for awards to seven of the eight applicants. Continue reading “Bloomington neighborhood grant approvals delayed to comply with Indiana’s Open Door Law”