By Scott Tibbs, June 23, 2008
Six years ago, one of the issues in the county elections was a concern that the Monroe County Council was spending too much time discussing issues not germane to the primary statutory responsibility of the council: setting the county budget and watching the county's finances. The Republicans won three of the four district seats and took a 5-2 majority that year, and they implemented a change when they took office in January: council comments on items not on the agenda were moved from the beginning of the meeting to the end.
That's never been the practice of the Bloomington City Council and it is not unusual for council comment to last an hour or more. At Last Wednesday's City Council meeting, reports from council members did not end until 8:20, fifty minutes after the meeting started. Then, the annual two-hour report on tax abatements from the Mayor's Office preceded the single agenda item that the council was to vote on that night - an agenda item that drew more than 30 people who were interested in the outcome and stayed until midnight to see it.
Sometimes, the "reports from council" are relevant and informative, such as the presentation on storm water and how to improve Bloomington's capabilities in that area. But when a council member repeatedly uses his time to criticize Interstate 69 over and over, it does become a concern - especially when such a report goes a half hour or more. I remarked to an acquaintance Wednesday night that the council comments would not go nearly as long if the meetings were not televised on CATS.
One solution is obvious: move comments by council members on items not on the agenda to the end of the meeting, a practice that the County Council still follows. This would be a welcome step to show the public that their interests come first, and the council's reserved TV time is secondary. This way, busy people who take tome out of their Wednesday evenings to watch local government at work are not left wondering how long it will be before the city council even gets to the items on that night's agenda. After all, city councilors is paid to attend those meetings.
It was also suggested on Wednesday night that the annual tax abatement report be moved to the end of the meeting, instead of at the beginning. For the past four years, the tax abatement report has been on the same night as the vote on the Jack Hopkins social service funding package. I suspect that this is intentionally done to try to wait out people who object to funding Planned Parenthood each and every year.
The tax abatement report is valuable, because it provides information on the impact these abatements have on the community. Since city government operates on a frozen levy, property taxes abated for one property need to be spread out over all other property taxpayers. For this reason, the public deserves to know what benefit comes from these abatements. However, providing this information does not require forcing community members to wait three hours after the start of a city council meeting before the council begins deliberation on a funding package that is always controversial. Moving the tax abatement report to the end of the meeting would recognize and encourage community involvement, and would show respect for the taxpayers who pay the councilors' salaries.