After coming up with more than 50 ideas for its 2018 work plan, the Billings City Council lopped off a dozen or so Saturday during a four-hour work session, still leaving staff and the council itself with a sizable to-do list for the months ahead.
Led by facilitator and former councilman Ryan Sullivan, who resigned last week and is moving to Houston, the 10 remaining council members compiled a spreadsheet full of ideas, which they then ranked into categories of high, medium and low priority.
Their final chore Saturday was to eliminate ideas they don’t want to pursue, including another run at a nondiscrimination ordinance; special review for “certain pet animals,” including potbellied pigs; a report on renters’ rights; a study of the Grand Avenue corridor between downtown and 17th Street West; and the appointment of a commission to look at possible charter revisions.
Council members gave city staff the task of determining a calendar for consideration of the remaining items, giving the highest priority to ideas with potential implications for 2018-19 budget, which is currently being constructed.
Among those ideas with the highest priority and/or budget considerations:
- An ordinance to eliminate illicit sexual activity in Billings spas. “In these places, young women are being raped,” said Councilwoman Penny Ronning. “We have turned a blind eye for too long.” City Attorney Brent Brooks said there are about 10 such facilities in Billings.
- Census 2020. The Census Bureau plans to open a 12-state regional office in Billings, and the city, said Planning and Community Services Director Wyeth Friday, is expected to develop a Complete Count Committee. Some limited funding may be needed for local committee efforts and outreach. The temporary jobs that will be added “will be somewhat significant,” Friday said.
- Funding for MET transit. Shane Ketterling, assistant director of aviation and traffic, said a work session presentation is planned for March on the need to replace 16 buses in the coming years, at $400,000 each. There’s about $2 million in reserve to help with the purchase, but in recent years Congress has been pulling back funding to communities for buying new buses.
- Implementation of the fire service’s strategic plan. Interim Fire Chief Bill Rash said the council will hear a report on a consultant’s study of facilities needs during its Feb. 20 work session.
- The 2019 legislative session. The contract with lobbyist Ed Bartlett expires June 30. He plans to present to the council in March. Asked how effective Billings’ lobbying efforts have been, Bruce McCandless, acting city administrator, could only smile. “With the Montana Legislature,” he said, “sometimes success is measured by what doesn’t happen to you.” Councilman Larry Brewster said any legislative help over the One Big Sky Center project “will require a very effective lobbyist.”
- An “aggressive” anti-graffiti program. Taggers “think it is art. It’s pretty and nice, but at the end of the day, it’s criminal mischief,” said Police Chief Rich St. John. “It’s annoying and it affects our quality of life, and it is spreading all over town.” Mayor Bill Cole called it “a unique animal that has a unique impact on our community.”
By meeting’s end, council members agreed they’d been through a worthwhile time together — particularly the council’s newest members.
“I appreciate your attention to the things I brought forward. Some didn’t go too far, and that’s OK,” said Denise Joy. "I see us as the front line in terms of the way residents live, and we feel that responsibility.”
“I want to acknowledge the significance of the day. One thousand people marched in North Park today (as part of the Montana Women’s March),” Ronning said.
Counting city staff, Ronning noted there were 17 men and 3 women around the table Saturday.
“Women have never had 50 percent representation in the history of our country. Every single law was written from a male point of view, and that permeates into every structure of society,” Ronning said. “Equality for all only happens when we acknowledge the equality of diversity. I’m grateful there are people who marched for equality so that I could be here and vote.”
Cole added that “as an organization with 900 employees, we have not talked about sexual harassment in the workplace – but we need to.”