When Mayor John Hamilton was sworn into office in 2016, he pledged to work for wage growth, affordable housing, the betterment of public education, government efficiency, more transparency and more engagement.
Three years later, Hamilton reflects on the struggle to make a city work for all types of people.
“You think every day, ‘Well, how do we make this place better every day for a few more people?’” Hamilton said. “It’s not a job you leave at the office.”
City council president Dave Rollo said he’d describe the mayor as ambitious.
Hamilton has been at the head of many changes to Bloomington over the past three years. From his “String of Pearls” projects, to the new armored vehicle, to annexation and the lawsuit that followed, Hamilton’s term in office has been a time of growth and controversy.
Transparency: too much or too little?
In order to fulfill his goal to improve government transparency, Hamilton created B-Clear, a website that currently has 173 data sets of public information. The data ranges from pothole reports to gun usage by the Bloomington Police Department and is updated multiple times a month.
“My basic view is that government belongs to the people and that the people now own that information,” Hamilton said. “It is not my information, it is not the city government’s information, it’s the public’s information.”
However, Hamilton’s transparency has been controversial.
The city made a website in 2017 called Bloomington Revealed to address issues including the opioid crisis and homelessness. Most data sets on this site have not been updated since 2017.
The website initially included a data set that showed the locations of overdose deaths in Monroe County. Amanda Barge, now Hamilton’s opponent in the Democratic primary, posted on Facebook criticizing the city for posting the locations of overdose deaths, saying the data shamed people with addictions and singled them out as “other.”
The information regarding specific locations of overdose deaths was removed from the website. All data on the site was public information.
William Ellis, Republican Party chair of Monroe County, said he supports for transparency in governance but did not consider publishing the overdose information transparency.
“Transparency is what the government is doing,” Ellis said. “Not what people do in private.”
Bloomington Council member Stephen Volan also said he thought publishing the overdose data was a mistake. He said he thought the city was being over-eager in being transparent and did not think about privacy.
Hamilton remains firm in his belief that publishing the information was important to solving the opioid crisis.
“Anyone who’s had an arrest report published in the newspaper says they wish there wasn’t so much transparency, but those are public records,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton proposed an annexation in February 2017 of 10,000 acres outside of Bloomington’s current city limits, adding an additional 15,000 people who would pay city taxes and receive city services.
It was an ambitious plan. Annexations are not typically this large.
“After years of not annexing, Mayor Hamilton decided to annex everything we ever wanted to annex,” Volan said.
Although he approved of the annexation at the time, Volan said in hindsight, he thinks the planned annexation was too big.
Regardless, Hamilton’s plan was shot down in April 2017 when state legislators made a last-minute change to the state’s budget bill, temporarily barring cities’ annexation plans. Bloomington was the only city affected.
In May, Bloomington sued Gov. Eric Holcomb for passing the bill.
“They singled out Bloomington as a state legislature to stop us from doing the very normal, regular process of annexation,” Hamilton said.
Ellis disagreed with Hamilton’s move to annex the large swath of land in 2017 because certain people who lived on the land being annexed did not want to be a part of the city.
“If you really want to be transparent you say, ‘We’re thinking about doing this, what do you think?’” Ellis said. “But they didn’t.”
Volan and Rollo both said, however, the state’s actions to disrupt the process of annexations were inappropriate.
“I think they overstepped,” Rollo said. “They fashioned this legislation just for Bloomington.”
The lawsuit is ongoing.
During Hamilton’s term, the Bloomington Police Department acquired state and national accreditation by the Indiana Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
The accreditations recognized the BPD’s excellence in public safety, commitment to communityand implementation of contemporary practices.
The vehicle has been used three times since it arrived in July, according to public records on B Clear. Hamilton said use of the armored vehicle is also reported every month at a public meeting.
The purchase garnered significant attention at city council meetings, public comment sessions, and public protests organized by the Bloomington chapter of Black Lives Matter.
Both Volan and Ellis said the city’s purchase of the vehicle was one of the least transparent decisions made during the Hamilton administration because of the abrupt announcement of the purchase with no prior warning to the public.
Ellis said while he wants Bloomington’s police to have the equipment they need, he thinks the purchase of the vehicle has actually hurt police and community relations.
“They did not realize how much of a controversy it would create,” Volan said.
Hamilton said he feels responsible for police officer and civilian safety.
“Those vehicles have been misused in some places,” Hamilton said. “They are a symbol of police excess, of racial conflict, and it is our job in Bloomington not to misuse them and to be sure we use them for fair, appropriate public safety and that’s my commitment.”
His “String of Pearls”
There are four projects Hamilton worked on during his term that he proudly refers to as his “String of Pearls.”
The city began development in March 2018 on the Trades District, an area around City Hall where the city envisions tech companies planting their roots and providing new jobs. There will also be residential buildings.
The district will be a Certified Technology Park, a designation from the state that lets the businesses keep up to $5 million of local and state tax revenue as well have the opportunity for state grant funding.
Ellis said he thinks the Trades District is one of the highlights of Hamilton’s terms because of the jobs in the tech sector it will create.
The purchase of the IU Health Bloomington Hospital site is another prideful moment for Hamilton . The city purchased the property worth $16 million for $6.5 million.
“It’s just an unparalleled opportunity right downtown to have 24 acres to redevelop,” Hamilton said.
Another of Hamilton’s projects, the expansion of the Monroe Convention Center, is now beginning its first phase of planning. It came at the cost of adopting the Food and Beverage Tax, a 1 percent tax on prepared food and beverages. The tax will fund the expansion and was protested and disliked by many, including Ellis.
Bloomington City Council member Stephen Volan said he sees the value in expanding the convention center.
“It’s not like we don’t know how to bring big events to town,” Volan said. “We just don’t have the facilities to brig groups here.”
While there has been disagreement in how the city and county will decide on what hotel will be put in near the convention center, Hamilton said he is confident the city and county will work it out.
Switchyard Park, opening this November, is the last of the mayor’s projects.
Near where Grimes Lane and the B-Line Trail intersect, the park will have a pavilion, a stage with a lawn that can accomodate 5,000 to 8,000 people. It will also have community gardens, sports courts, a play area with water features, a playground, a skate park and a dog park. The area used to be a regional hub for trains until the early 2000s.
Affordable housing and the future
Hamilton’s main goal for his second term, if he wins, is affordable housing.
Over the past three years under Hamilton, the city supported the addition of 600 bedrooms of affordable housing to Bloomington, which includes housing for middle-income residents, the homeless and seniors on Medicaid.
Rollo said Hamilton has done more to support affordable housing than any mayor in the past. Volan said he thinks Hamilton has made a concerted effort.
“It will not be a successful Bloomington, in my view, if we lose the middle class, the working folks, the nurses, the school teachers, the police officers, the healthcare attendants, the IT specialists,” Hamilton said. “They need to be able to live in Bloomington.”
The problem of accommodating for people of all walks of life is a problem faced by many successful cities today, Hamilton said.
Ellis said he thinks the city has too many restrictions for developers who build housing.
“If they let people build housing, there will be enough affordable housing,” Ellis said.
Hamilton said his role as mayor is also to look to the future and think about people who aren’t here yet.
“We’ve always changed,” Hamilton said. “If we stop changing then that’s not a recipe for future success. We have to change well, change smart.”