This is the first of two stories on the installation of speed bumps on West 3rd Street.
When the Bloomington Board of Public Works elected to override a vote by the city council regarding a set of speed bumps, the decision set in motion a string of events municipal government watchers say is, unusual if not unprecedented. As a result, the real speed bumps may not be in the middle of West Third Street, but in the communication between several governmental bodies.
Public Works Board Overrides City Council
The four black, rectangular speed bumps along West 3rd Street in Bloomington are just a few inches tall – just big enough for cars to have to slow down as they pass over them.
But for all the debate which surrounded the speed bumps, they may as well have been mountains – or at least roadblocks.
Though the city’s engineering department found there was no standard by which the road needed the speed bumps, the city council narrowly approved their installation. That brought a separate piece of city code called the Neighborhood Traffic Safety Program, or NTSP, to bear.
In it are 12 steps which govern how streets may be changed. Step 8 requires approval from the city council. Step 9 requires the board of public works to either approve the project or send it back to the city’s engineering department for review.
But since city engineers had expressed skepticism about the project, the board, decided to unanimously reject the proposal. Mayor Mark Kruzan, who had been opposed to installing the speed bumps, said he thought the decision was a sound one, as it helped the city avoid legal action.
“If we simply put in speed control that the engineers believe is not warranted under generally accepted principles, that opens the city to liability,” he says.
Mayor Has Speed Bumps Installed To Avoid Suit
But council member Chris Sturbaum, who had pushed for the speed bumps, was not ready to give up.
“There were two possibilities,” he says. “One was involve the circuit court, who’s kind of like a referee when executive and legislative branches disagree. And the more complicated one would have been to give a clarifying directive to the Board of Public Works from the council.”
“In my thirty-some years in local government,” Orville Powell says, “I’ve never run across where a city council is threatening to sue the city.
Kruzan says the city was notified of the possibility the council would sue to have the speed bumps put in. Faced with the possibility of taxpayers paying for an intra-city legal battle, Kruzan elected to go around the Board of Public Works’ vote and have the speed bumps installed.
City council attorney Dan Sherman, who declined to be interviewed on tape for this story, says the council did not threaten the city with a suit. Kruzan, though, clearly felt pressure.
“Absolutely there was, and I’m very surprised that that’s what he said,” Kruzan says. “Absolutely we were more than under the impression that there was going to be litigation or we wouldn’t have even considered the need to do this.”
An Anomaly In City Government
“I would doubt that the city council would have much standing in that,” says Indiana University professor Orville Powell, who previously served as city manager in Gainesville, Florida and both Durham and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “They can appropriate the money, but the mayor doesn’t have to spend it. Just like Congress can appropriate the money at the federal level, but the president doesn’t have to spend it.”
Moreover, Powell says the intra-governmental lawsuit Kruzan suggests is not common.
“In my thirty-some years in local government I’ve never run across where a city council is threatening to sue the city – their city administration – to get them to do something,” he says. “Interesting, but very unusual.”
Though his move was not technically an override of the Board of Public Works’ vote to stall the project, Kruzan’s decision to have the speed bumps installed effectively trumped the process outlined in the NTSP.
Board President Charlotte Zietlow would not say how she felt about the decision, but says the commotion speaks to the need for process reform.
“He has the right to do that, and I think what it means is that I would hope in the future that the process gets clarified so that that doesn’t happen,” she says.
Did the Board of Public Works even have the power to stop the process in its tracks? And what to do when different documents appear to confer different powers to boards and elected officials? Those issues and a discussion of what’s already being done to change the NTSP tomorrow.