More than six hours after commencing its Tuesday night meeting, a divided Billings City Council voted to order city staff to suspend work on the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance.
The vote, which occurred at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday following hours of public testimony, was 6-5.
Mayor Tom Hanel, who was welcoming Honor Flight veterans home at Billings Logan International Airport during a similar vote last month, cast the deciding vote Wednesday.
The previous vote failed on a 5-5 tie. Councilman Shaun Brown brought forward both initiatives. City staff has not completed its work drafting the proposed ordinance, but had been prepared to deliver it to the city council in time for its June 16 work session.
As it now stands, Hanel said Wednesday, the city council is prepared to hear from the public during its June 9 meeting. Testimony will be limited to three minutes each person, he said.
Hanel said Wednesday afternoon that he was concerned by “the aggressiveness of some of the testimony and the division of the people.
"I feel as if we had gone forward last night in preparation and study of an ordinance, the division would have been more severe, and it could have made matters even worse,” Hanel said.
There’s “a very good possibility this could come up again,” Hanel said. “I think it’s time to let everyone cool off and let the community come back together.”
Hanel said he spoke to leaders in other Montana communities “who said if they had to do it over again, they would have stopped (the NDO) in its tracks.”
Those officials, he said, included Helena City Manager Ron Alles, a Billings native, and Michael J. Winters, the mayor of Great Falls.
Council member Jani McCall, whose initiative set in motion the drafting of the ordinance, said she was “incredibly disappointed” by Wednesday’s vote.
“I believe the LGBT community needs to be protected and supported with the same civil rights as every other person in the community,” she said. “Those who don’t want this to happen would rather postpone voting on this than letting the hearing happen and then voting. I think some on the council don’t want to make their vote publicly. It’s easier to postpone it, because for them the timing isn’t good.”
Council member Denis Pitman, who joined Hanel, Brown, Mike Yakawich, Angela Cimmino and Rich McFadden to vote to close down the writing of the ordinance, called the late-night meeting “nerve-racking for the whole council. It wasn’t an easy slam dunk. What it came down to for me was the basic sense that we don’t even have an ordinance in front of us.”
McCall was joined in support of allowing the ordinance to move forward by council members Becky Bird, Al Swanson, Ken Crouch and Brent Cromley.
Pitman said he prefers that Hanel issue a proclamation declaring Billings “a welcoming community. That would pretty much accomplish what an ordinance does. I think that’s a positive message to send out.”
Liz Welch, the LGBT advocacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, said she was “profoundly disappointed” by the city council’s vote, “primarily for the fact that there were so many people who reached out and made themselves vulnerable in this. They contacted the city to explain how it would impact them, and that didn’t seem to matter.”
She said other Montana communities that have enacted an NDO “has come up against glitches, and they have ultimately moved forward, because it was the right thing to do in their community.”
Welch suggested that council members pack a snack before attending the June 9 meeting, “and they should consider packing a breakfast.”
She said Hanel in particular “looked people in the eye and voted away their rights.”
For his part, Hanel said he “respect(s) the efforts of those who support the NDO, and I’ve always displayed fairness.”
He said he prefers that the Montana Legislature take up a nondiscrimination bill “and then send it back to the communities” for their consideration.
“I question what we accomplish at a city level,” he said. “Let’s take two steps back and let people’s feelings settle back to normal.”