Not in Our Town funding request sparks controversy

2014-03-17T22:07:00Z 2014-04-02T16:26:04Z Not in Our Town funding request sparks controversyBy MIKE FERGUSON The Billings Gazette

Residents jammed city council chambers Monday to discuss an item that wasn’t even on the agenda for Monday’s Billings City Council work session.

At the outset of the meeting, Mayor Tom Hanel announced that a non-discrimination ordinance, which has not been submitted to the council and won’t be until after the council completes its budget process in June, “is not part of the agenda.”

Some people found a way to talk about the nonexistent ordinance anyway — through a request for the city to help fund a national conference in June.

On behalf of a committee planning a national gathering June 20-22 for the Not in Our Town organization founded in Billings, former Mayor Chuck Tooley asked the council for a $25,000 donation, to be taken from the council’s contingency fund. City Administrator Tina Volek said the council will not take up the funding request before its April 14 meeting.

Tooley said that Billings banks, other businesses and individuals have contributed toward the $50,000 commitment made by local organizers to help pay for the event. “We have seen a lot of enthusiasm, but not everyone is right on time getting their checks in,” he said.

After Tooley completed his testimony, 17 people followed him to the lectern, most opposed to the council authorizing the expenditure of public money on the event.

Dick Pence, coordinator of Big Sky Worldview Forum, urged the council to “go very slow on this decision” and said that even a quick look at NIOT’s Facebook page shows that “you don’t have to go very far to discover that this is not the same group as it was 20 years ago. It has a completely different agenda.”

Rhonda Kiesser, connections pastor at New Life Church, said she’s concerned, as a Christian pastor who performs wedding ceremonies, that as NIOT grows, it “promotes the rights of the homosexual agenda.” Her concern, she said, is that “the rights of somebody’s choice will override the freedom of religion given to me. I think you stand on a slippery slope,” she told the council, should it grant the funding request.

The church’s senior pastor, Lester Hall, said he believes the $25,000 would amount to “more of an endorsement” than an expression of support. He said he has “a biblical right and a mandate from God” to teach followers as he does, but a non-discrimination ordinance “would force me to go against my conscience and break the law.”

Kay Foster, a member of the steering committee planning the June event and raising money to pay for it, said she was disturbed by some of the comments made Monday and urged the council to grant the funding request. “Whatever level of support, I think it would be a great gesture, just a gesture to show we are open, affirming and inclusive,” she said.

Asked by Councilman Shaun Brown if supporting NIOT financially would diminish  — and not celebrate  — what residents accomplished in 1993 when they came together to identify and reduce the effects of openly-expressed bigotry, Foster said she believes “this is where we think your money should be placed.”

John Smilie, who was a lay leader at First Congregational United Church of Christ when NIOT was founded and is married to State Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, said he believes it’s “sad that people think (the city’s donation) wouldn’t honor what happened 20 years ago because of an imagined agenda.”

Thomas Hall, the interim pastor at First Congregational Church, reminded the council that “these are two decisions” the council is being asked to make. He said citizens contribute tax dollars to government programs they don’t necessarily agree with. “When you support NIOT, you’re lending credence to the fact that this was a major event in the life of Billings.”

In other business

Council members heard reports on three programs known by their acronyms: CIP, ERP and TRP. Those stand for Capital Improvement Plan, Equipment Replacement Plan and Technology Replacement Plan. The council will deal with the spending requests under those programs during its upcoming budget discussions.

In addition, Wyeth Friday, planning division manager, brought the council up to speed on a pair of properties that could, in the coming years, be annexed into the city.

An annexation committee that includes various city departments and is also represented by School District 2 officials recommends placing two properties on the red area of the 2014 annexation map. The red denotes areas that could be annexed within a five-year period, while those in orange areas are considered more long-range possible annexations.

The two properties Friday discussed with the council are the 447-acre Knife River property off Shiloh Road and the 290-acre Elysian Road area property off Elysian Road.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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