The very basics of how Bloomington’s city council works: update

Your humble servant, en portrait c.2007. Note the gavel peeking out at right.

Your humble servant, en portrait c.2007. It’s not a great photo, I know. Note the gavel peeking out at right.

Wednesday nights are Council meeting nights, and they can go on. Last night’s committee of the whole was not too long, at only 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Despite being a night owl, I’m not keen on writing after meetings. I also have to admit that my first efforts at blogging here about local government were half-hearted, spasmodic. Which is why I’m happy to report that some of those old posts are still useful. Take this one, from ten years ago, which only needs a few corrections.

Bloomington’s nine councilmembers meet in regular session twice monthly, on the first and third Wednesdays of the month at 7:30 pm.

It may seem like we meet more often than that. That’s because we do. Let me explain.

Any item we consider — an ordinance, an appropriation ordinance (not the same thing), a resolution (non-binding) — must be introduced during a regular session. Its introduction is called a “first reading.” During that session, the resolution [item] is only read out loud, letting people know that we’re going to talk about it the next time we meet.

Well, if we waited until the next regular session to discuss the resolution [item] in public, it might be considered, and accepted or rejected, in the course of a few meager hours [of meeting time]. But everyone wants to get some vague idea of where the public, the mayor’s office and administration, and fellow councilmembers stand on the issue at hand before councilmembers go spouting off about it during a regular session.

So, to get this idea, the council meets in a “committee of the whole,” where we get a formal presentation on the resolution [item] by whoever’s sponsoring it, and then we get to grill people about it. Then we take public comment on the  [item]. Then councilmembers get to make final comments [debate it], then we vote on a recommendation to our future selves a week from now as to whether the resolution [item] ought to pass (“yes”) or not (“no”). Then we go home.

Since the vast majority of [ordinances and] resolutions require deliberation, the council conducts regular “committee of the whole” meetings on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, also at 7:30 pm.

At the next regular session, the resolution [item] gets its “second reading,” which is also [often] its final reading. We go through the same process as the week before, but usually it’s only to resolve major hang-ups that came up. Councilmembers then vote to adopt the resolution [item] (“aye”) or reject it (“nay”). If the ayes have it, the resolution becomes official, or the ordinance becomes law.

There you go, that’s the basics. It’s all televised on public-access (which we might lose soon thanks to the greedy Baby Bells broadband providers, more on that later) and then webcast by HoosierNet [CATS (search for “city council”)] so you can watch all the gory details.

On the fifth Wednesday of the month, we rest. Also, we take a month off between the first regular session in August and the first in September [July 15 and August 15]. And we skip committees of the whole between the last [after the second] regular session of December and the last one of January. Oh, and Spring Break. Hallelujah.

P.S.: No, I don’t get a per diem for traveling to council meetings.

Things are mostly the same today. We’ve bumped our month-long summer recess up a couple of weeks, and pushed budget week to late August, thanks to improvements in state statute regarding budgets, Most everything else is the same.

Since 2006, I’ve served as parliamentarian more than once, and am again this year. On that note, some more fundamental vocabulary you must know to understand the local process above more clearly:

  • Statute means state law. (There is no such thing as “local statute.”)
  • Ordinance means local law. This is true for counties as well as cities and towns. (There is no such thing, though, as “state ordinance.”) A funny thing about this word: it means both “local law” AND “a bill or proposal to create local law.” Ordinance 16-29, for example, was on our agenda last night; if it passes, it will still be called an ordinance. This is confusing, and I got nothin’. That’s just the term.
  • Appropriation ordinances (what we like to call “app ords” for short) are what the administration must get us to approve if they want to spend money that isn’t in the annual budget. Unlike ordinances and resolutions, app ords and the annual budget must be initiated by the executive. The Council can only cut money; it cannot, by statute, increase a budget or spending request. Ordinances and app ords require at least two “readings” before they can be approved.
  • Resolutions are not laws. They do not change city code, and so can be considered and passed in a single evening.
  • Councilmember. This is the preferred term in Bloomington for a member of council, a single word. It is a mouthful, but you get used to it.
    • It’s not “councillor,” which is too easily confused with “counselor,” a common term for an attorney. We have at least one attorney present at each meeting — in this case, our long-time council attorney Dan Sherman — so that word always leads to confusion.
    • We also don’t use the words “councilman” or “councilwoman.” All too often, people, especially petitioners and other members of the public, get confused. Some have been known to address a female member as “councilwoman” and a male member as “councilmember” — bad form.
    • In writing, we often abbreviate councilmember as “CM.”
    • We also use chairperson. Or just chair. (Otherwise, again with the sexism.) This is the member who presides over a committee hearing.
  • Public comment. When a member of the public addresses the Council on an issue. This is not an opportunity for back-and-forth; CMs will not answer your questions directly. If a CM likes your comment and wants to ask your question on your behalf, he or she will.
  • Debate. After an issue has been presented, Council asks questions until they’re satisfied. Then the public gets to comment on the issue. Then the issue comes back to Council for debate. Unlike “comment,” in debate, members may speak up to two times on the issue. That way, if another member speaking after the first says something disagreeable, the first member has a chance to rebut the statement. But only “two bites of the apple” are allowed. No member may get a third bite without the consent of two-thirds of members. (The sharp Councilmanic reader may note a subtle change regarding debate in the 2006 text above. This will be the topic of a future post.)

That’s enough for now. Another AMA tomorrow.

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