Two types of Council meetings, and the obscure difference between them

The Bloomington City Council meets weekly, on Wednesday nights at 7:30. While these meetings are always open to the public as a matter of course, how one gets to participate depends on what week of the month it is.

Regular-strength and concentrated

That’s because there are two kinds of Council meetings. The difference between them is obscure, but important and deserving of explication.

Regular meetings of the council are the first and third Wednesdays of the month. The main thing that happens at regular meetings is legislation. A bill gets introduced at a regular meeting (what we technically call “First Reading”) and eventually gets a final vote, up or down (what we call “Second Reading”) at a later regular meeting.

In between First and Second Readings, a bill gets considered in a Committee of the Whole. Committees of the Whole are held on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, for the sole purpose of previewing the case for a given piece of legislation. Everyone interested gets to hear what initial questions and concerns the council has about the bill, members of the public get to speak about the topic, and councilmembers get to debate the issue. Then the council makes a non-binding vote of recommendation as to whether on Second Reading (i.e., in a regular meeting) the council should formally make the bill into an ordinance.

Okay, so that’s the legislative cycle in a nutshell. Now the question is, when do all those other things that happen at council meetings happen? Answer: not during committees of the whole.

The pomp and circumstance

The Council allots time only at the beginning and end of Regular meetings for the public to speak on any item not already on that evening’s agenda. Councilmembers, too, get to speak their mind on any topic only during Regular meetings. It’s only during Regular meetings that the Council hears reports from boards, commissions, and various offices in the administration up to and including the mayor himself. It’s only during Regular meetings that the Council can vote on nominees to council-appointed seats on various city commissions.

During Committees of the Whole, there’s no comment allowed from the public except on the items on that night’s agenda. There’s no extraneous councilmember comments, either (theoretically). No boards and commissions. No mayor’s report. No other pomp and circumstance.

Fifth Wednesdays and Other Cities

And if there’s a fifth Wednesday in the month? The council takes a break, much anticipated by all (including — especially — councilmembers themselves).

Is Bloomington unusual in the way it handles its legislation? Not particularly. Fort Wayne meets like we do, only their “regular meetings” are on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays and their “committees of the whole” on 1st and 3rd Tuesdays. Maybe we’re unusual for our smaller size, but Bloomington and Fort Wayne are both second-class cities.

Speaking of second-class, on the other hand, there’s Lafayette: same size as us, but meets only twice a month, with their “caucus” meeting coming five days before their regular meeting. That sure would be nice, to only be worrying about city issues one week out of the month.

Maybe they’re just a bunch of slackers in Lafayette. Maybe not enough happens there to warrant more meetings. (Maybe someone from there will take this bait and notify me so I can stop casting aspersions on their good name. Although it’s so easy…so tempting. Nothing like intrastate rivalry.)

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