Mayoral candidates draw lines at progressive forum

Written by Kurt Christian from the Herald Times

The city’s two Democratic mayoral candidates sought draw a clear distinction between their progressive politics during a Monday evening forum.

Democracy for Monroe County hosted the event to hear the candidates’ thoughts on the city’s annexation lawsuit, taxpayer-funded projects, inclusivity and more. One of the most polarized responses from Monroe County Commissioner Amanda Barge and incumbent Mayor John Hamilton had to do with the city’s ongoing lawsuit against the state that asserts Indiana’s Legislature took unconstitutional action to block Bloomington’s annexation attempt.

“You’re darn right I think we ought to sue them,” Hamilton said. “It’s an outrageous state government stepping on the neck of city government.”

Hamilton said the city needs to assert its prerogative to institute local decisions, and that this annexation lawsuit is the way to do it. Barge disagreed.

“I think the lawsuit is a waste of time,” she said.

Barge said she would rather establish a memorandum of understanding between the city and the county to ensure a more transparent and procedural approach.

“We weren’t really having conversations. Everyone was playing catch-up,” Barge said. “The responsible thing to do is to annex the places that make sense, first.”

One member of the audience asked how either candidate could consider taxpayer-funded projects such as the Switchyard Park and the Monroe Convention Center’s redevelopment and think they are progressive. Hamilton said his administration’s work on the Trades District, the city’s parks and trails and the purchase of IU Health Bloomington Hospital’s current property move the entire city forward.

Hamilton said he was surprised to learn that Bloomington has one of the lowest tax rates of the state’s top 20 largest cities. He said Bloomington did those things while being fiscally responsible and improving its bond rating.

“We’re not an either-or city. We’re a both-and city,” Hamilton said.

Barge said the right choice in situations where a city is taking on a lot of projects might be to push pause.

“We don’t want to build a park and all of these things on the backs of taxpayers, on the backs of people who are being marginalized,” she said.

Barge promised to always ask who is missing from the table when the city is working toward making a big decision. She said, if she becomes mayor, she wants to make sure those missing voices aren’t exploited.

“We have to be careful not to do tokenism or exploiting people for their information,” Barge said. “If you want to make it a more meaningful interaction, offer to pay someone with experience to share it.”

Mayoral candidates discuss affordable housing

By Kurt Christian from the Herald Times

Democratic mayoral candidates John Hamilton and Amanda Barge engaged in a heated debate Tuesday evening over Bloomington’s and Monroe County’s affordable housing scorecards.

Indiana University’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity hosted an event Tuesday to discuss the Bloomington’s high residential costs. Hamilton stressed helping residents across the income spectrum and taking immediate action to address the city’s lacking supply.

Barge wants to see higher wages as a path to affordability and more representatives on governing bodies who are actually affected by high housing costs.

After saying his mayoral administration helped create more than 600 bedrooms of affordable housing, Hamilton asked Barge how many she has helped create in her role as a Monroe County commissioner. Barge did not give a number and said the city refused to work with the county to help create the infrastructure needed to create such housing.

State of the City addresses power dynamics

By Kurt Christian from the Herald Times

This year’s State of the City Address drew a line in the sand between state lawmakers’ interests and the city’s goals, including a new plan to power Bloomington.

Mayor John Hamilton delivered the final address of his first term Thursday evening. He recounted the city’s successes leading up to its third century before listing challenges Bloomington still has to face: homelessness, substance abuse, hunger, climate change and more. The mayor also detailed a slew of legislative roadblocks the city has faced in its efforts to raise the minimum wage and create affordable housing.

“This state legislature seems to be looking backward,” Hamilton said. “Even today, they refused to pass a real hate crime bill. They are close to passing a bill effectively banning abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy. They may arm our teachers. They shut their eyes to climate change. We, in this progressive community, will keep fighting for our city’s future.”

Hamilton promised Thursday to convene a task force in the next 60 days to study the city’s energy systems, mobility, food and infrastructure.

“I’m directing this new task force to evaluate whether, and how, we might convert our wastewater plant to an anaerobic digestion process,” Hamilton said.

Vic Kelson, City of Bloomington Utilities director, said the Dillman Road wastewater treatment plant currently uses an aerobic system. He said the current system for treating the city’s wastewater produces a sludge of mostly dead micro-organisms. City employees feed that sludge oxygen and deprive them of food so that the remaining micro-organisms essentially digest themselves.

In anaerobic digestion, workers place the mass of mostly dead micro-organisms into a sealed vessel and add a mix of new organisms that eat the sludge and produce methane gas. Kelson said that methane gas can be captured, and re-purposed.

“The next step of this equation is we purchase vehicles that can run off this natural gas,” Kelson said after the mayor’s address.

Hamilton said about 40 percent of the community’s waste is compostable, and over 100 tons of those compostable materials are put into a landfill each day. On top of that, Hamilton said the city’s busses, plows, trucks and other vehicles use over half a million gallons of fuel each year. Anaerobic digestion, he said, could address each of those issues at once.

“This is a complicated challenge, but it’s one we ought to tackle together,” Hamilton said. “What happens here does change the world.”

Among the accolades Hamilton highlighted Thursday were the city’s continued 100-percent rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index and its status as a gold-level Bike Friendly City. Bloomington is the only city in Indiana to have received those honors. He also mentioned how the city’s parks department was recently given a gold medal and recognized for being the best parks department of all mid-sized cities in the nation.

Hamilton stressed the benefit Bloomington will see from the 4,100 jobs created or retained by IU Health Bloomington Hospital, Cook Group and Catalent. He’s hoping the city will be seen as an example of a good employer, now that all regular city employees receive at least $15 per hour.

“Rampant income and wealth inequality is eroding our whole society, and affordable housing is an existential challenge to Bloomington’s future,” Hamilton said.

Looking ahead, Hamilton said the $14 million leveraged by CDFI-Friendly Bloomington will create significant affordable housing opportunities in places like the current hospital site, when it’s ready to be re-developed. The city purchased 24 acres of the hospital land from IU Health for $6.5 million last year. The city is currently choosing a master developer to help transform the near downtown site.

Mayor to deliver State of the City Address Thursday

By Kurt Christian from the Herald Times

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton will deliver the final State of the City Address of his first term on Thursday against a backdrop of music, poetry and more.

This year’s State of the City Address is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. The evening’s agenda includes a poetry reading by Emily Bobo, department chair of Fine Arts and Humanities at Bloomington’s Ivy Tech Community College and founder of Bobo Books. Generation Jam, a group of around 50 beginning musicians ages 7 to 84, will also put on an interactive performance.

Those who can’t make it to 114 E. Kirkwood Ave. will be able to watch the mayor’s remarks live on Community Access TV Services (CATS), on Comcast channel 12.

Last year, the State of the City Address was interrupted by protesters alleging the city’s purchase of a $225,000 armored vehicle was an act of militarization that would disproportionately affect people of color. City officials adjourned the evening’s meeting early, and Hamilton gave a full reading of his remarks behind locked doors the next day.

City officials urge lawmakers to pass hate crimes legislation

By Ernest Rollins from the Herald Times

Local officials are urging Indiana lawmakers to pass a hate crimes law this session.

In a letter to Indiana Senate Leader Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, Bloomington officials and others call on lawmakers to support hate crime legislation that would “allow judges to increase sentencing when it has been determined that a crime has been motivated by bias against a victim’s characteristics that include, but are not limited to, their race, religion, color, sex, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, housing status or status as a veteran.”

Some notable signatories include people with the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, the city council and clerk, the Monroe County Council and the Monroe County Board of Commissioners.

“Hate crimes and prosecuting them are sadly topical in Indiana in 2019,” Mayor John Hamilton said during a Facebook live town hall meeting Wednesday.

During the event, Congregation Beth Shalom president Lesley Levin said any law that passes must also address reporting requirements and enforcement.

Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff said Indiana law enforcement agencies currently are required to report hate crimes that occur in their community to state and federal databases. However, Diekhoff said, Bloomington is one of the few agencies that do so. And even though it’s required, he said there are no penalties if an agency does not report hate crimes.

Bloomington Human Rights Commission member Barbara McKinney said the city passed a human rights ordinance that tracks reports and provides ways for citizens to report them and offer support to victims.

Indiana is one of five states that does not have a hate crimes law on its books.

Talk of changing that picked up momentum in recent months, and a number of bills have been filed on the issue. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has expressed his desire to have a hate crimes law passed by the close of this year’s legislative session.

But supporters may face an uphill battle at the Statehouse. Some legislators question the need for the law, while others have stated their opposition.

Diekhoff disagreed with the concept that a hate crimes law would be akin to policing a person’s thoughts. And supporters of passing a law argue that incidents of hate crimes are under reported, in part because many police agencies don’t follow requirements and also because victims are hesitant to report to authorities.

Some are against the law because of the low number of hate crimes that get reported. Another hurdle is the concern of some lawmakers about who should be included. During a recent visit to Monroe County, State Rep. Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville, described the bills being discussed at the statehouse as those with lists and those without. Bloomington Chamber of Commerce President Erin Predmore said that for some legislators, extending protections to transgender people is a sticking point.

While some members of the Monroe County community urge passing the law, others do not.

The Coalition of Central Indiana Tea Parties has sent state legislators a letter requesting they reject all attempts to pass a hate crimes bill. A Monroe County native and Indiana Conservative Alliance leader, Robert Hall, is one of the people who signed the letter.

The coalition argues that a hate crimes bill is constitutionally suspect as it violates Article 1, Section 23, of the Indiana Constitution, which states “the General Assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

Coalition members also cite the low number of reported incidents, and refute claims that companies will think twice about doing business with Indiana without a hate crimes bill on the books. They say businesses consider other factors, such as taxes and regulation, when making decisions.

Hate crime bills also do not align with the values of many Hoosiers and are unjust as victims of identical crimes are cared for less because “they don’t fall under a list of politically protected crimes,” the letter states.

“These bills are unconscionable because they show contempt for the moral and religious views of millions of Hoosiers by including ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ as protected categories,” the letter says. “Such bills suggest that disapproval alone — even when expressed lovingly and peacefully — constitute hate or a hate crime.”

Even though the possibility of Indiana having a hate crimes law by the end of session is undecided, discussion of the issue is important. Doug Bauder, director of Indiana University’s LGBTQ+ Culture Center, said he hopes legislators reach out to those minority groups to try and understand their experience and points of view.

The proposed legislation challenges lawmakers “to start to think about what experiences may be like for other groups that live in Indiana,” Predmore said.

City launches "Year of Food" initiative

By Ernest Rollins from the Herald Times

Bloomington officials have designated 2019 as the Year of Food, as they launch an initiative meant to strengthen the local food economy and address issues such as hunger and food equity throughout the community.

As part of the initiative, the city plans to hire a value-chain coordinator who will examine the local food system and supply chains and take steps to improve them. Responsibilities will include connecting local growers to buyers, identifying and finding solutions to overcome barriers to growing the local food system and creating local demand for local farm products.

Autumn Salamack, the city’s assistant director of sustainability, said the effort will educate people about the local food landscape.

“We thought about this Year of Food as a way to really kick start that conversation and really amplify the existing efforts that are already taking place within the community through a lot of organizations and social services providers,” Salamack said.

The new position will be partially funded through a United States Department of Agriculture Local Food Promotion Program grant awarded to Purdue University and Indiana University.

Jodee Ellett, community engagement coordinator for the IU Sustainable Food Systems Science Initiative, said the grant is about $500,000 for three years. Along with the funding the city’s value-chain coordinator, it will provide funding for three other similar positions around Indiana.

Salamack said the grant provides $22,000 per year for the position’s salary and travel. She said the city will contribute $20,000 per year as a grant match for the job.

Ellett said the rest of the grant funds will be used to increase the ability of growers to receive food and safety training. She said the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act is a barrier for growers, and the additional training money will address that challenge.

Some of the grant money will go to the food science department at Purdue University to develop food safety programs for home-based vendors and users of kitchen shares like One World Enterprise in Bloomington.

Salamack said the city will be using the recently adopted Sustainability Action Plan as a guide to address a number of food issues facing the community. She said the sustainability action plan lays out three goals for the city: increasing equitable access to healthy food, increasing the amount of food produced in gardens and increasing economic opportunities.

“During the Year of Food, we will work with our partners at IU and in the community to strengthen the market for local growers and producers,” Mayor John Hamilton said in a press release. “When our farmers have a reliable local market, we all have a more reliable and resilient source of nutrition in our own backyard.”

The city’s plan to educate citizens will include special events throughout the year, starting with the screening of the movie “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste” at 4 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

Salamack said the city also plans to study food deserts in the community, where at least 20 percent of people in a given area live in poverty and more than 33 percent live more than a mile from a supermarket.

She said the USDA identifies the IU campus and the area that includes Broadview, Southern Pines, Sunflower Gardens, Rockport Hills and Evergreen Village neighborhoods as food deserts. Salamack said the Bloomington Food Policy Council has also identified the Crestmont, Reverend Butler, Walnut Woods and Maple Heights neighborhoods as areas at risk for food insecurity as well.

“We are not going to solve food insecurity in the year, but it would be great if everybody in the community understood what our challenges are, what our opportunities are,” she said. “And we can say here’s how we are taking steps to address those things.”

Ask The Mayor: Bloomington's Hamilton On Reelection, Parking

By Joe Hren from IndianaPublicMedia.Org

City workers got through the first snow storm of the season, Thursday will be the first architect meeting on the convention center expansion and the mayor's next step in city-wide high speed broadband.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton addresses these issues and more. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: You've officially recorded your reelection commitment, so 2019 will also be a campaign for your second term. Why run again?

Hamilton: Well I feel very privileged to be in this job, it's a wonderful community and I feel like we've made a lot of progress over three years and like many mayors would tell you, a lot of the work you do takes a long time, you're building the city momentum for decades to come. And we'll be having a lot of discussion about that in the campaign season ahead.

Hren: Catalent announced a $100 million expansion with 200 new jobs by 2024. To go along with that the state is offering tax credits that are performance based… and I hear the city is working on an incentive package. What’s in the works?

Hamilton: We are working on abatement, that will go through city council. In the new economy, the word unicorn is a company that then sells for a billion dollars, and for a community to have a unicorn is a big deal. Catalent is really our first unicorn. 

To have a major new enter into the community, expanding from Baxter and Cook to add a major third life science company is a big deal in terms of the climate and ecosystem. It's a positive sign this is a community people can thrive in.

Hren: I've been told to ask you about high-speed broadband, one of your initiatives that seemed to take a hit back when Axia backed out of a city deal, is the process still moving forward?

Hamilton: Digital infrastructure is hugely important for Bloomington. And the not just Bloomington, but the United States is behind the curve in digital infrastructure. We have private providers that are providing access. I continue to believe that we need to work to continue that access. 

Hren: We have a question from Ann on email, "With the stated objective of streamlining the process to make building easier in Bloomington, the draft UDO proposes changing the power to grant variances and waivers of zoning regulations from citizen appointed boards to an in-house decision-making process which reduces public input.  Does this fly counter to the mayor’s oft touted goal of making government more transparent?"

Hamilton: It actually doesn't change what we have. Right now there are certain projects that just go to staff if they are a certain size and type. Then there are those that go through the plan commission in the bigger public input. The UDO doesn't change that, the UDO actually tries to split it into three pieces, it creates a new middle ground that does try to say... if you build what we want, this UDO suggests we want to give you a streamline process and if you don't build what we want, you'll have more intense scrutiny.

So it's really not changing the overall structure, it is adding a category where we can try to steer more development toward what we want as a community.

Reviewing Hamilton's first three years in office

By Kurt Christian from the Herald Times

As John Hamilton enters his fourth year as mayor of Bloomington, this year’s municipal elections will reflect whether he’s delivered on his promise to “say what we’ll do and do what we say.”

Hamilton has used that Dr. Seuss reference as a refrain since his inauguration remarks in 2016, when he said his administration would be efficient, transparent and have better citizen engagement than prior administrations.

He immediately set the standard for his mantra by listing Bloomington’s jobs and economy, affordable housing, public education and innovative government as top priorities.

“I ran for office because I felt like Bloomington had opportunities ahead of it, challenges in front of it, that needed to be met,” Hamilton said this week. “We’re in a better shape today than we were three years ago.”

But for all the advances Hamilton’s administration claims in those endeavors, there have been missteps to balance the scales along the way.

A failed annexation attempt, strained intergovernmental relationships, a lack of transparency surrounding the purchase of an armored vehicle — and more.

‘String of Pearls’

One of the most readily available demonstrations of what the Hamilton administration has focused on — and seized upon repeatedly in public remarks — is what Hamilton calls the city’s ‘String of Pearls.’

Hamilton gave that name to four major landmarks along the city’s B-Line trail: the Trades District, the Monroe Convention Center, the IU Health Bloomington Hospital property and Switchyard Park.

The 12-acre portion of the city’s technology park, called the Trades District, predates the current administration. But it wasn’t until March 2018 that Hamilton and other community leaders broke ground on the city’s technology hub.

The journey to that milestone included the district’s first dedicated private investor, construction of the Trade’s District’s new affordable housing, the renovation and launch of The Mill, regional partnerships with Indianapolis and Columbus and more.

“That’s a huge step into the new economy for us, and that’s really important for a place that doesn’t make color televisions or elevators or refrigerators anymore,” Hamilton said of the city’s past manufacturing giants — RCA, Otis Elevator and GE.

Hamilton inherited an uncertain future for the IU Health Bloomington Hospital’s 24-acre campus. As the hospital’s plans to partner with Indiana University to relocate the hospital to the Ind. 45/46 Bypass materialized, Hamilton counted the city lucky. That good fortune carried over, and early last year, hospital officials agreed to sell the current hospital property to the city at a deep discount.

“We’ve seen cities where the departure of a hospital from a downtown site was very destructive and expensive and a drag on the city locations around it for many years, even decades. I was very concerned about that,” Hamilton said.

City officials negotiated a $6.5 million purchase price for a clear site scrubbed of environmental hazards. The Hamilton administration has since contracted with a nonprofit urban planning institute and interviewed master developers to bring plans for new housing, offices and community space to life.

Another inherited project more than a decade in the making is expected to become a reality the same month as the fall election: the $34 million, 58-acre Switchyard Park.

“What I inherited was the responsibility to execute, listen and make sure we’re doing it as well as we can,” Hamilton said. “If that were the only thing that were happening in my tenure, I would be excited.”

The Monroe Convention Center and its planned expansion has been problematic for Hamilton, who has been criticized for straining the city and county relationship by privately meeting with architects. Community leaders involved in the project did not respond to a request for comment Friday regarding Hamilton’s role in the process.

The Hamilton administration’s chapped government relationships extend beyond south central Indiana, to the state and federal levels.

Affordable housing

The more than 600 bedrooms of affordable housing created or preserved in Hamilton’s first three years were brought about by a variety of methods he outlined in his first State of the City address.

But Hamilton’s effort to incorporate inclusionary zoning was squashed by state lawmakers.

“It just means we have to be more creative,” Hamilton said. “The legislature ties a hand behind our back, we’ve got to use the other one and build it up stronger to get what our community wants.”

The city has created a pilot program for accessory dwelling units, helped launch senior living options for low-income citizens and leveraged more than $10 million through a new community banking institution for developers to use for affordable housing.

“We’ve got to tie the engine of our prosperous city to protecting affordability, or we will gentrify and we will make it impossible for people of moderate means and low means to be able to live in this city,” Hamilton said.

His administration also launched the Housing Development Fund and solicited developers for cash in lieu of on-site affordable housing, a practice that’s legal but likened to bribery.

Hamilton rejects that characterization. He said asking for a contribution is similar to the way the city can require developers to provide green space in their projects.

Hamilton said the federal department of Housing and Urban Development has reduced funding in recent years and as a result, cities must develop affordable housing on their own.

He is behind the community push for affordable housing, but points out it’s not free. “It has to be paid for and made economically viable in some way,” Hamilton said.


Monroe County residents had their own economic concerns about the Hamilton administration’s 2017 attempt at annexing around 10,000 acres into the city.

Geoff McKim, a county council member, said he attended just about every meeting about annexation. He said a majority of residents at those meetings were against the proposal.

“As you can probably imagine, what I heard from county residents was overwhelmingly negative,” McKim said.

Curious as to how the annexation might impact taxing units, McKim calculated the details on how the county’s lower tax revenues might be balanced by new services. He said he never heard an adequate proposal for how the county would recover that lost tax revenue.

“That was the argument form the taxing units, but the argument from the residents was that they felt like they were going to be paying more money and having more regulation, and they didn’t feel the benefits would outweigh the potential costs.”

That debate was cut short when the state legislature approved its 2017 biennial budget bill with a section effectively terminating Bloomington’s annexation attempt and prohibiting any further attempts to annex until 2022. The city announced it was suing the state and Governor Eric Holcomb shortly after. Hamilton said the city filed its final briefing in lawsuit last week and Bloomington officials will present before the court in the coming months. Already, he anticipates whoever loses will file an appeal.

“I guess litigation will take the gas out of all kinds of things. It just means you’ve got to sit and wait for the court. We’ll see what happens,” Hamilton said. “Litigation will take its merry time.”


Hamilton sees the city’s move to activity-based budgeting, which directly links spending to actions and their outcomes, as another form of transparency. He’s also planning to involve local youth in the new budgeting format.

B-Clear, the city’s data portal with more than 150 data sets open for the public’s use, helped the city earn a top ten ranking in the Center for Digital Government’s 2018 Digital Cities Survey. The B-Clear portal was one of the first initiatives launched by the Hamilton administration.

Another of the city’s websites aimed at transparency drew harsh criticism late last year for including the full names and addresses of all individuals who died from a drug overdose in Monroe County in the past 10 years, including minors. Hamilton said the city learned from that experience that full transparency can sometimes be painful.

Other times, it can be loud. Protesters interrupted Hamilton’s State of the City Address in 2018 to argue that the city’s decision to purchase an armored vehicle was too secretive, and that such a vehicle would serve to militarize the police.

Later that month, Hamilton admitted the city could’ve been more forthcoming in its decision. The Bloomington City Council has since passed legislation to ensure a more public review of such purchases in the future. More recently, Hamilton said the core of the debate was not about transparency, but about whether the city should even have the vehicle.


The city’s plan for a ubiquitous, community controlled and revenue positive fiber infrastructure is not dead.

“I’ve probably spent more time myself on that effort than any other individual project because I do think the digital infrastructure of our community is essential, it continues to be essential to our future,” Hamilton said.

After hosting a symposium and advertising the city’s interest to the world with a request for qualifications, the city chose Canadian fiber infrastructure provider Axia as its chosen partner. That relationship dissolved when the company’s capital sources decided not to invest. Hamilton said one positive to come from the failed partnership was that other fiber providers increased their services in response to the competition. In the meantime, the city has had ongoing negotiations with two more companies since the Axia deal fell apart.

Hamilton also feels the current federal administration’s response to innovative and consumer-focused digital infrastructure was a step in the wrong direction. He said the state government has its own anti-government bent, one that’s dominated by rural and conservative voices.

“Indiana will not be a successful state without very successful cities making up its economy and culture and its social centers. To have successful municipalities, successful cities, you’ve got to get your boot off the neck to let cities innovate, differentiate, follow their strengths and pursue their opportunities,” Hamilton said.