Bloomington, Indiana – An ordinance that establishes a new city seal for Bloomington does not appear on the city council’s regular meeting agenda for Wednesday, Dec. 2.

Yet that is the date when it was proposed by the city clerk to be effective.

Those two morsels make for some pretty thin civic gruel in the post-Thanksgiving news cycle. But it’s not too thin to feed a proposal that would tweak the city council’s legislative process.

One part of the approach served up here would change a single line of the local code, which prohibits any debate on a new law when it is first introduced to the city council.

The other change to the process would make routine for all legislation a practice that the city council already uses for the annual budget: Councilmembers submit written questions, which are then answered by staff in writing, and posted for the public to review.

Before looking at that proposal in a little more detail, it’s worth adding a little meat to the legislative soup of the city seal.

The city seal ordinance got a first reading at the council’s meeting on Nov. 18. So, it could get a vote on Dec. 2, and still conform with one basic requirement in both state statute and local code. The requirement is that no ordinance be enacted on the same day or at the same meeting when it is first read, without the unanimous consent of those present and without a two-thirds majority.

If there are no extra legal requirements for enactment on Dec. 2, why doesn’t the city seal ordinance appear on that day’s agenda—especially when it was expected to be enacted on that day?

It’s about custom. The reason the ordinance did not make it onto the Dec. 2 agenda is that the council has, in this instance, decided to adhere to a custom that is not required by statute or local code.

That custom is to allow a committee—either the committee of the whole, or a standing committee—to review legislation after it is first read.

It’s not legally required that a committee review legislation between the first and second readings. The city council demonstrated the absence of such a requirement earlier this year. An ordinance that would have established a new sustainable development fund advisory commission  was given a first reading on Sept. 9, and was given a vote on Sept. 16, with no review by a committee. (The ordinance passed on an initial vote, but failed 0–9 on reconsideration.)

In the case of the sustainable development fund advisory commission, no committee meeting was planned.

For the city seal ordinance, an administration committee meeting was planned (for Nov. 18) but was not held. That’s because it was scheduled to start after a regular council meeting concluded. But the regular council meeting lasted until nearly midnight. Under local code, standing committees can’t start their meetings after 9:45 p.m. So the committee couldn’t meet on that night.

The decision on Nov. 18, by city council president Steve Volan, who also chairs the four-member administration committee, was to reschedule the administration committee meeting for Dec. 9.

A different decision could have been made: Place the city seal ordinance on the agenda for the Dec. 2 meeting of the full council.

One argument for that decision could have been that the topic of a new city seal is already familiar, uncontroversial, and therefore doesn’t require additional investigation and scrutiny of a council committee.

As far as familiarity goes, the topic of a new city seal was already considered by the administration committee in early September. And the uncontroversial character of the proposal, from city clerk Nicole Bolden, was reflected in the reaction from committee member Jim Sims: “This is non-controversial, pretty easy. Let’s do it. I think it’s simple. Let’s do it.”

The new city seal and regulations for its use was also the topic of a city council work session held on Oct. 30. It did not appear to generate any concern from the six councilmembers who attended.

At the October work session, Sims had a question about the possible trademarking of the city seal. And councilmember Sue Sgambelluri, who’s also a member of the council’s administration committee, expressed her enthusiasm: “Hooray! This is exciting. I’m not even sure why it’s so exciting. It just is.” Sgambelluri added, “I am especially glad that you’re putting in language related to enforcement and appropriate use and so forth. So thank you for doing that.”

Sgambelluri wrapped up her comments with a request of city clerk Nicole Bolden: “I would just be interested, when the conversation comes, about talking more about enforcement… If you could just talk more about that when the time comes, I’d appreciate it.”

When “the time comes” will be Dec. 9 instead of Dec. 2.  A vote by the council could now be expected on Dec. 16. That delay is based apparently not on a need to scrutinize and study the ordinance on the new city seal, but rather on a desire to adhere to a council custom. It’s the custom that some committee review an ordinance—either the committee of the whole or a four-member standing committee—before a vote by the city council.

It’s a custom that’s independent of the city council’s internal fight at the beginning of the year over the creation of several new standing committees.

What councilmembers seemed to agree on is a general need to scrutinize legislation and ask questions about it, between the time when it gets introduced and the time when the council votes on its enactment.

What councilmembers disagreed about was the answer to this question: Should the mechanism for additional scrutiny should be an additional meeting that’s held by a four-member standing committee, or one held by the council’s committee of the whole?

That question presupposes that some additional meeting has to take place.

Why do councilmembers perceive a need to hold some additional committee meeting on proposed legislation—between the council meeting when it’s first read and the meeting when they vote on enactment?

At least part of that perception can be traced to a requirement of local code that puts a rigid constraint on what can happen at the first meeting: “An ordinance may not be debated or amended at its first reading or introduction unless state or federal requirements provide otherwise.”

It’s not clear what purpose is served by that constraint. The council could enact an ordinance to eliminate that part of the code.

If that code requirement did not exist, then the council would have a chance to ask questions about the ordinance at its first reading, presumably after a quick presentation by the sponsor, whether it’s a city staffer or a member of the council.

That initial presentation of legislation, at first reading, could be prepped with a round of written questions from councilmembers and the public. Written answers to questions would be posted as an addendum to the meeting information packet, on the Friday before a first reading on Wednesday.

That assumes a change to the current legislative rhythm. The initial meeting information packet—with the agenda, a copy of the legislation, any background material and memos—would need to be posted a whole week earlier than is currently the practice.

That means on a Friday, 12 days ahead of a Wednesday council meeting, an information packet containing new legislation would be posted. Councilmembers and the public could have until, say, the end of the day Tuesday (8 days before the council meeting) to submit questions to the council office. Questions would be compiled and distributed by office staff, with answers due by early Friday, for posting as a packet addendum later that day.

It’s a timeline that would give councilmembers and the public a whole weekend plus two weekdays to stew on the answers to written questions about the legislation before it is first read.

The custom of submitting written questions and getting written answers is one that’s familiar to the council as part of its annual budget process. This proposal would extend that custom to all legislation.

The written Q&A process described here would give councilmembers and the public a chance to set the stage for the first reading of legislation, which could be a time when some discussion by the council is entertained. The event of a first reading could be transformed from a recitation of title and synopsis by the clerk to a meaningful part of the legislative process.

The discussion on the night of first reading could help determine whether the legislation needs to be referred to a committee for a separate meeting. Those separate committee meetings normally fall on weeks when no regular council meeting is scheduled.

That means everyone involved—the public, city councilmembers, staff—could be highly motivated to get as many questions answered and issues clarified as possible before the night of first reading.

If the legislation needs no referral to a committee, the following week could be free of meetings, a well-earned respite.

Put another way, if this approach to Bloomington’s legislative process were executed right, it could mean every other week of the year is a week off from city council business—just like this past week, but not always with turkey.