The steering committee raising money for the Not In Our Town national leadership gathering in June has withdrawn the $25,000 funding request it made to the Billings City Council last month.
“It was never our intent to cause the city council such strife,” Eran Thompson, board chair of Not In Our Town Billings, said Wednesday. Thompson is also a member of the steering committee that’s committed to raising $50,000 to help put on the national gathering, set for June 20-22 in Billings. At least 300 — and perhaps as many as 400 — delegates are expected to attend.
Not In Our Town originated in Billings in 1993. The grassroots movement was founded to turn back hatred and intolerance following a wave of local hate crimes.
During the March 17 city council meeting, former Mayor Chuck Tooley, who chairs the steering committee made up of business and civil leaders, made the funding request, basing it on the $25,000 the city of Bloomington, Ill., contributed to the most recent NIOT national gathering in 2006.
Tooley said the steering committee withdrew its request Monday following an accusation of conflict of interest against council member Becky Bird and city administrator Tina Volek, an accusation Volek said was made by Kevin Nelson of Billings. Bird is a member of the steering committee; Volek is her alternate, but hasn’t attended very many steering committee meetings, Tooley said.
“We don’t want the city council to be in the middle of a manufactured controversy,” Tooley said. “We thought that since Billings was home to the movement that (the city council) might want to get involved. We thought that most of the council would want to get involved.”
He said there’s “no reason to believe” that the national gathering won’t still be held in Billings. The steering committee “is still working, and we still have our asks in. We’re just waiting to hear back.”
Thompson said that the timing of the March 17 funding request was unfortunate. People attending the city council meeting wanted to talk about a proposed non-discrimination ordinance that the council will consider this summer, he said, and determined instead to speak out against the NIOT request.
“We just thought, 'let’s just ask the city of Billings and make our case,' ” he said. “The folks who opposed the NDO wanted to make those issues the same issues” to discourage the city council from approving the funding.
Tooley said after the March 17 meeting somebody told him, “Chuck, you sure got shanghaied at that meeting.”
“All of a sudden, the two issues were conflated,” he said. “We made our ask in public. We would have felt bad if somebody would have said, ‘We saw that the city of Bloomington supported the national gathering (in 2006), but you never gave us the chance to support this one.’”
That funding decision was to come before the Billings City Council on April 14.
Thompson said the steering committee is halfway toward meeting the $50,000 target and has been buoyed by individual contributions totaling about $2,000, many of which came about following the March 17 city council meeting.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel said he believes withdrawing the funding request is “for the better.”
“I’ve always supported Not In Our Town, but I think we need to be very cautious how we use tax dollars,” he said. “We received a vast amount of emails and phone calls — mostly phone calls, in my case — and almost all were opposed” to the funding request.
“I think it’s a good move on their part. It shows their ability to work with the community,” Hanel added. “I don’t think they wanted to bring about any negative aspect.”
Hanel said he will promote the national gathering “to the best of my ability,” including a mayoral proclamation. “I’ll be encouraging people to support it, too.”
"I am sure we will move forward with a proclamation," said council member Denis Pitman via email, "and I appreciate them withdrawing their funding request."
Pitman's colleague, Jani McCall, said in an email that she believes the members of the steering committee "were wise in their decision to withdraw their funding request to the City Council. I wish them the best of success with the conference. I support a proclamation to that effect and I hope to take part in some of the activities."