City staff is recommending the Billings City Council approve the nondiscrimination ordinance during its Aug. 11 meeting — but delay its enforcement.
Posted Monday as part of the Aug. 11 meeting packet, a memo by City Administrator Tina Volek recommends that the city council approve the NDO during first and second readings, but postpone enforcing the ordinance until an attorney general’s opinion has been issued.
Volek wrote that “staff is concerned abut taking the time and money to create a process for handling complaints or to actually begin processing complaints, only to be told by the Attorney General that the city does not have the authority to enact such an ordinance.”
The city council voted 6-5 June 23 to seek an opinion from Montana Attorney General Tim Fox on whether Billings has the authority to enact an NDO — despite advice from Volek not to.
“My obligation at this point is to remind you that we are a charter form of government,” she told the council that evening. “We are given authority by the state to undertake activities not available to non-charter organizations. … If you ask for an opinion and the city’s authority is limited, there are potential challenges and problems and limitations that could be visited upon us in the future.”
“An attorney general’s opinion has binding state authority,” she said, “and it could have implications we have not entirely thought of.”
The NDO has had a long and tumultuous journey during the months leading up to Monday’s public hearing. Public hearings have packed council chambers, with the crowd spilling out into the hallway and, at least once, into a neighboring church.
The NDO is the final item of business on the Aug. 11 agenda.
The ordinance was first proposed by the city’s Human Relations Commission during a work session last December. Councilwoman Jani McCall moved what became the ordinance on Jan. 27.
In May, the council directed staff to stop working on the ordinance. The council subsequently defeated that directive June 9, and work on the proposed language continued.
During its July 21 work session, the city council directed staff to put the NDO draft on the agenda for a public hearing and vote, still scheduled for Aug. 11.
The NDO prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people. Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow, Helena and Bozeman already have nondiscrimination ordinances, but Billings is the first city to use a municipal infraction process to handle discrimination complaints.
City council members are free to amend the language of the NDO at either reading during the month of August.
According to Volek, the city council has six options Monday. Staff recommends the second option.
• Approve the ordinance on first reading, undertake a second reading on the consent agenda Aug. 25, and, if approved, allow the ordinance to become effective 30 days after the second reading
• Approve the ordinance on the first reading and undertake the second reading Aug. 25, but delay the ordinance’s effective date until the attorney general has issued his opinion
• Amend the ordinance and undertake the second reading on the amended ordinance Aug. 25, allowing the amended ordinance to become effective in 30 days
• Place the ordinance on a future ballot, even though it’s too late to process the ordinance for the Nov. 4 election
• Postpone action to another date
• Not approve the ordinance.