An outpouring of reaction against plans to create a special citywide park district appears to have persuaded a majority of City Council members that the issue should be put to a public vote.
Ward 1 Councilman Jim Ronquillo said he's been hearing from people at task force meetings, in one-on-one encounters and while serving lunch recently at the South Park Senior Citizens Center.
"They've all told me the same thing: if we're going to do this, we should let them vote on it," he said.
That is what a majority of council members now seem inclined to do.
Mayor Tom Hanel and seven council members said they are likely to vote in favor of putting the issue on the ballot rather than creating the district by a vote of the council. The only council member who could not be reached for comment, Rich McFadden of Ward 3, already voted in favor of a failed motion to put the proposal on the ballot.
That puts at least nine of the 11 votes on the council in favor of letting the public vote on the matter.
And Ed Ulledalen of Ward 4 said he is undecided only because he thinks it might be better to postpone any decision on park spending until the council has a better idea of what people want in terms of parks and recreation services.
"Our timing, packaging and delivery were so bad that we have to go back to the drawing board," he said.
Peggie Gaghen of Ward 1 said she wasn't sure what option she favored, but she acknowledged that "a lot of people feel pretty disenfranchised." She said there is "a crying need" for money to maintain city parks, but she said she also understood the concerns of many voters, particularly the large number of people on fixed incomes in her ward.
The idea of creating a citywide district to pay for $9 million in deferred maintenance at city parks came from the Parks Board, which based its recommendation on a 2009 state law that gave cities the authority to create special park districts.
"We learned that that isn't the way people in Billings want to do it," Ward 5's Dick Clark said.
Like Clark, Councilmen Vince Ruegamer of Ward 3 and Mark Astle of Ward 5 said they would probably vote in favor of putting the issue to a public vote if someone else makes a motion to do so.
Hanel and Ronquillo, along with council members Denis Pitman and Angela Cimmino, both of Ward 2, said they are definitely in favor of a public vote. At the Nov. 14 meeting at which the council passed the resolution of intent to create the district, Cimmino made a substitute motion to put the issue on the June ballot. That motion died on an 8-3 vote, with only Pitman and McFadden joining Cimmino.
Hanel said he is leaning toward making a motion at Monday's regular meeting to reconsider the Nov. 14 vote. Anyone on the prevailing side of a vote can move to reconsider the action, either on the night of the vote or at the next meeting.
If Hanel or anyone else moves for reconsideration of the Nov. 14 vote and the motion passes, it would put the issue back on the agenda at the next regular meeting, in this case Dec. 12.
However, most council members favor waiting until the matter comes up again on Dec. 19, as scheduled.
That's mainly because the formal written protest period ends Dec. 16. If enough property owners protest creation of the district, the proposal would die automatically and couldn't be reconsidered for at least a year.
If there are enough protests to kill the idea, all well and good, Ronquillo said. But if the protest fails, council members now seem likely to put some kind of bond issue or mill levy on the ballot next year. Ronquillo said discussions haven't reached the point yet of looking at what kind of issue would be put to the voters.
As of Friday morning, City Clerk Cari Martin said, the city had received 903 written protests. However, the protests are weighted in terms of the value of property held by each person protesting. To kill the proposal, protests would have to be filed by people owning property worth more than 50 percent of the total taxable property in the city.
So far, Martin said, the protests equal 2.81 percent of the total taxable value.
Some of the protests that have come in were tossed out as invalid because they lacked signatures of the property owner or owners. If more than one person is listed as the owner of a piece of property, all of them have to sign the protest.
Martin said she won't be notifying people of invalid protests, so if people realize they forgot to sign their name or left off any other information, it is up to them to resubmit a letter of protest.
All the protest has to include is a brief statement -- as simple as "I protest" -- with the property owner's name, address and tax code number, with a signature.
In addition to the protests, phone calls and face-to-face comments, the City Council has also heard from a lot of residents by email. Between Nov. 15 and Friday, 24 people sent emails to the council, only two of which expressed support for the park district and the method of creating it.
All the rest were opposed, although Martin said a couple of the emails expressed support for more park spending, but not for creation of a park district by the council.
Clark said he hadn't encountered this level of public comment on any issue since the City Council was debating restrictions on medical marijuana sales.
Hanel said he has been hearing almost nothing but "fairly strong opposition" to the proposal, and Astle said no more than 5 or 10 percent of the comments he's heard were in favor of the proposal.
Ruegamer said he initially favored putting the issue to a vote, but after he understood how the process worked, he thought the filing of protests was a good way to hear from the public. But it's hard to support anything but a public vote at this point, he said.
"I've heard too many complaints from people," he said.
Jani McCall of Ward 4 said she believed the protest process put veto power in the hands of the people who would pay for the parks improvements, as opposed to a ballot issue that would be voted on by people whether or not they owned property.
Even so, she said, "clearly we've heard huge response that people are wanting to vote on this and I think we need to listen to that."
Regardless of how the council is leaning, Pitman said, people should file protests if they are against the proposal.
"I think it's still important that people send in their protest and not assume anything," he said.
Cimmino said she wishes her motion for a public vote had been approved on Nov. 14, since it would have saved the city and the public a lot of time and trouble, but she's glad her colleagues are coming around, however belatedly.
"I'll support the parks," she said, "but let's do it in an appropriate way."