Now that Billings' longest night is over, the real work begins

2014-06-10T19:00:00Z 2014-08-12T16:39:07Z Now that Billings' longest night is over, the real work beginsBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

On Monday and into Tuesday morning, 143 people offered up to three minutes of testimony on Billings’ proposed nondiscrimination ordinance.

Mayor Tom Hanel enforced a strict three-minute time limit. If he hadn’t, the meeting might still be going on. Testimony was civil even as people stood or sat for up to eight hours on stairways leading to council chambers to await their three minutes of testimony.

A day after the longest Billings City Council meeting that city staff can recall, City Administrator Tina Volek knows what she and part of her administrative team will be up to on Wednesday.

They’ll be smoothing out the rough edges on the language contained in the city’s proposed nondiscrimination ordinance.

Just before 6 a.m. Tuesday, the City Council voted 7-4 to lift a two-week ban preventing city staff from working on the ordinance.

Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Tom Hanel said he intended to vote in favor of lifting the ban on drafting the

ordinance. He was joined by council members Angela Cimmino, who also changed her vote from two weeks ago, as well as Al Swanson, Ken Crouch, Jani McCall, Becky Bird and Brent Cromley.

Council members Shaun Brown, Mike Yakawich, Denis Pitman and Rich McFadden voted against lifting the ban, as they had May 26.

Hanel said his switched vote didn’t come about because he changed his mind, but because he had wanted to give the 2014-15 budget full consideration before taking on the NDO.

Cimmino said she made a promise in January to look at the issue once the budget action was complete; the council unanimously approved the fiscal year 2015 budget Monday evening.

In January, the City Council voted 10-1 to approve council member Janie McCall’s initiative authorizing staff to research NDOs in other communities and come up with a Billings version.

That’s a task that staff is up to and expects to complete in time for Monday’s 5:30 p.m. City Council work session, Volek said. The NDO will be the only item on that meeting’s agenda. Typically, the City Council takes no action during work sessions.

“We believe (the Monday-Tuesday meeting) was the longest public hearing on record,” Volek said, eclipsing a public hearing on the construction of the Mormon Temple that broke up at about 4 a.m. “This is clearly an issue that is attracting a lot of passion on both sides. I think what was clear is that the City Council has given this long and serious thought, and I think they will continue to give it that kind of attention.”

On Tuesday night, McCall said, “I was just incredibly pleased that the council had the courage to vote to rescind tabling the NDO initiative.”

With staff from the city attorney’s office as well as human resources joining her to complete work on the NDO proposal, Volek said she believes staff can develop an ordinance that’s right for Billings. Staff has looked at NDOs from other Montana communities — Bozeman, Butte-Silver Bow, Helena and Missoula — as well as those from cities outside Montana.

One issue that staff continues to work through is how to enforce the ordinance. In one recent case, a Colorado baker who declined to provide cakes for a gay wedding had to go before the state’s human rights commission, then take some sensitivity classes.

Missoula’s nondiscrimination ordinance states that a person’s first three violations of the ordinance are civil, but the fourth is considered a criminal offense.

“Other communities,” Volek said, “have a process they describe as civil, but they don’t detail what happens.”

She said that proponents on both sides of the nondiscrimination ordinance — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Montana Family Foundation — offered to help draft the Billings NDO, but Volek declined both offers.

“We believed the legal and human resources staff are well capable of handling it, and so we chose to do our work internally,” she said. “The process should be neutral and at arm’s length.”

Still, the Billings ordinance will probably contain language and ideas found in other ordinances. After all, those ordinances were also vetted by their cities’ legal staff, Volek said.

“It’s realistic to think that ours will look something like those policies, but not completely,” Volek said.

She said that the City Council’s reaction to the proposal during Monday’s work session will determine a timetable for proceeding with a vote on the NDO.

“If the council thinks it needs massive redrafting, then we are well into the summer,” she said. “If they’re satisfied, we can move pretty quickly.”

Because it’s an ordinance, the proposal will require a public hearing and a second reading before it can be adopted. No dates have been set for those milestones, Volek said.

A parallel task is to update the city’s administrative orders in light of the proposed NDO, Volek said. Those administrative orders touch on important policies, including how the city deals with harassment and affirmative action, she said.

“On those, it’s a matter of fine tuning,” she said. “I just issue an order revoking existing orders. We will amend those internally.”

McCall said that once the ordinance is drafted, the council has a big decision ahead.

“History will show that we are on the right side of this important issue, that ensures equality and civil rights for all individuals in our city, including the LGBT community.

“I think the most important thing is that this is a defining moment for each of us on the council individually and collectively. It’s a defining moment for the city of Billings.”

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