The Bloomington City Council struck down a proposed ordinance 4-4 that would protect homeless encampments early Thursday morning. The decision came after a nine-hour meeting including public comment and debate, marking the longest council meeting since at least 2004.
The ordinance would have required city officials to take a series of steps before the city could displace people experiencing homelessness from camps. Some of those steps include ensuring the displaced individual would be provided with transitional or permanent housing and the city providing storage for personal belongings.
This ordinance was drafted in response to the city evicting people staying at Seminary Park twice since December. City officials began enforcing rules in December that require anyone setting up tents in a public space between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. to have a permit after having paused enforcement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Final efforts from the legislation’s sponsors to tack amendments aiming to garner more support from members of the council failed. Some councilmembers believed the amendment was watered down, while others did not support it.
The vote was held despite the absence of Council President Jims Sims, one of the council’s nine members and the only Black member on the council. Sims was not present due to a death in his family.
During public comment, a few residents said the decision to move the vote forward without Sims was racist.
“I can't believe that you are doing this as a council tonight while councilmember Sims is not present,” Cathi Crabtree, the former Vice President of the Monroe County chapter of the National Organization For Women, said. “That is completely disrespectful.”
Councilmember Dave Rollo, apparently unaware that his mic was on, said he was receiving messages in the Zoom chat about Sims’s absence.
“This is fucking ridiculous,” he said. “I'm being dog-piled by people calling me a racist for excluding Jim.”
Rollo later apologized for his remark, calling it an “indiscretion.”
The council had the opportunity to allow Sims to vote on this legislation by postponing the vote until a regular council meeting in April, but councilmembers Sue Sgambelluri, Susan Sandberg, Ron Smith and Rollo rejected that motion.
Mayor John Hamilton’s administration opposed the ordinance. Multiple city officials attended the meeting to speak against the legislation.
“It drives a wedge into the community, and for that, I’m profoundly sorry,” councilmember Ron Smith said. “We are dismayed that we who don’t support this ordinance are being vilified, threatened, yelled at and called names.”
Smith’s comment came after a heated period of public comment at last week’s council meeting. During the meeting, Deputy Mayor Mick Renneisen said finding shelter for people experiencing homelessnesss wasn’t part of the city’s “core service area.”
Smith does not support the legislation, he said. It was struck down despite the support of multiple community organizations, such as the Bloomington Homeless Coalition. The vast majority of the dozens offering public comment at the meeting were in favor of the ordinance.
Councilmembers Matt Flaherty, Kate Rosenbarger and Isabel Piedmont-Smith, the authors of the bill, were criticized by Sandberg and the other opponents on the council for not working closely with officials in the mayor’s office when they crafted the legislation.
“This has all been done without proper communication with or consideration of the employees of our city, who are going to be tasked with the execution of this,” Sandberg said.
Representatives from Hamilton’s administration said at last week’s city council meeting it would be too difficult for the city to uphold the obligations of the ordinance because of financial costs and logistical issues.
The councilmembers opposing the legislation have not proposed any alternative option to this ordinance and voted Wednesday against allowing the council to send the bill back to a committee. This could have allowed the ordinance to be amended in its entirety, in effect creating new legislation.
Those opposing the legislation refused to commit to proposing new legislation to help Bloomington’s unhoused community at Wednesday’s meeting.
Piedmont-Smith said this bill needed to be passed because the situation is an emergency.
“I feel like we're just sweeping the problem under the rug,” Piedmont-Smith said. “Again, this is a very urgent problem. This is not something that we can take another 10 years, 20 years to deal with.”
The winter homeless shelters will close in April, Piedmont-Smith said. Director of Bloomington’s Community and Family Resources Department Beverly Calender-Anderson said the decision will depend on the effects of the ongoing pandemic.
The council meeting lasted more than nine hours from Wednesday evening to early Thursday morning due to the large number of public comments and the refusal of some members to move the discussion to another session. Volan, who joined the council in 2004, said it was the longest meeting he’s sat through as a member. He supported pushing debate until April and was displeased with the decision not to postpone.
“I, for one, I'm not going to give up my right to speak to this issue as I have many times before in the name of lateness,” he said. “I am very disappointed that we made this choice.”
At 2:30 a.m. Thursday, 100 participants were still watching the meeting.
“This meeting was probably one of the most disappointing things I've listened to in a really, really long time,” IU student Zikra Fashirsaid said during public comment. “This is something that is so basic, one of the most basic things we can provide for people.”