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City Limits: What are the responsibilities of Bloomington City Council president?

Bloomington City Hall building in the summer.

(WFIU/WTIU News File)

It’s not uncommon for the nine members of Bloomington City Council to disagree on policy, but it is unusual for council to publicly vote between two members for the role of council president.  

During last week’s annual organizational meeting, councilmember Susan Sandberg defeated councilmember Matt Flaherty by a 5-4 vote for the top leadership position. This is the first-time council held such a vote in recent history, at least dating back to 2003  

“It’s no secret there are two groupings of the nine elected council members, even though we are all members of the same political party,” councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith said in support of Flaherty. “I would characterize the two groups as those who challenge the status quo and those who usually do not.” 

She said councilmembers Flaherty, Steve Volan, Kate Rosenbarger, and herself have been labeled “activist councilmembers.” This puts councilmember Sandberg, Ron Smith, Jim Sims, Dave Rollo, and Sue Sgambelluri in the majority.  

“What some consider activists, I consider just doing my job,” she said. “And it’s okay for councilmembers to have different perceptions of the same job- I think that becomes clear through the election process and voters chose the candidate whose interpretation of the role most closely matches their own.” 

Isabel Piedmont-Smith
Isabel Piedmont-Smith is the district five representative on the Bloomington City Council. She was first elected in 2007, and again in 2015 and 2019. She did not run for re-election in 2011. During her tenure, she has served as council president in 2010, vice president in 2009 and 2018, and parliamentarian in 2020. (Courtesy: City of Bloomington)

The council president serves as presiding officer and is tasked with creating meeting agendas, and thus scheduling legislation for first and second readings. This requires balancing several factors, including the order legislation is submitted, state-mandated deadlines, and council legal staff recommendations.  

And that’s the issue minority councilmembers are hoping to address. Piedmont-Smith said council should elect one member of both the majority and minority to serve as council leadership. 

“I note that in 2021, both leadership posts were filled by members of the group of five, and the parliamentarian [Flaherty] was shut out of leadership meetings,” she said.

In terms of how council has historically elected presidents, former councilmember Andy Ruff said Democratic members would always meet privately in a caucus to finalize a slate of nominees and determine the implications of officer elections. There was no set rotation or specific prerequisites to holding a leadership position.  

“And that’s legitimate caucus business,” he said.  “You can do that under state law.” 

However, Indiana Public Access Councilor Luke Britt issued an advisory opinion in 2021 regarding council’s use of caucuses. This opinion is in response to a records request submitted by the B Square Bulletin.

The PAC opinion said, “appointments of officers and members of other governing bodies and committees is public business and not politics.” Under Indiana’s Open Door Law, a caucus can discuss political business and party agendas, but is forbidden from discussing public business relating to official duties.

Ruff said he has not been paying close enough attention in recent years, but after 20 years on council he knows there are several factors that lead to procedural change.  

“Maybe the council now just feels like we’re just going to do all this in a public meeting so there is just no hassle, no blowback, no accusations, no public records requests,” Ruff said.

Andy Ruff
Andy Ruff served on Bloomington City Council as an at-large representative for 20 years. He was first elected in 1999 and served through 2019. During his tenure, he served as president three times. (Courtesy: Indiana University)

Ruff served as president three times between 2000 and 2019 and said the main responsibility of president is serving as the face of the council to the public. The council president must diffuse tension among council members, work with city administration, and stay in contact with Monroe County and Indiana University officials.   

“I think the job of president really is to set aside, to a great extent, their own activist agenda during that time when they are president and really work towards consensus on the council,” he said. 

And that’s exactly what newly elected council president Sandberg said she will do.  This will be her fourth term as president, a role she approaches as a respectful facilitator between council and the mayor’s administration. However, she does not intend to control the overall will of the council.  

“I have never perceived the role and leadership as having any more authority than any other duly elected colleagues,” Sandberg said. “I have always characterized my personal work on the council as being one of nine.” 

After Sandberg defeated Flaherty, he attempted to run for council vice president and lost to councilmember Sgambelluri by the same 5-4 vote. Councilmember Dave Rollo was elected parliamentarian unanimously. 

This story has been updated to include the Indiana Public Access Councilor advisory opinion. 

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