Gazette opinion: Open meeting law applies to nondiscrimination ‘initiative’

2014-07-07T00:00:00Z 2014-07-07T09:24:11Z Gazette opinion: Open meeting law applies to nondiscrimination ‘initiative’ The Billings Gazette
July 07, 2014 12:00 am

With the draft nondiscrimination ordinance as the last item on its agenda tonight, the Billings City Council can expect to hear again from many passionate proponents and opponents. The meeting beginning at 5:30 p.m. is a work session where no formal votes will be taken.

The situation has changed since the public last spoke to the council. On a 6-5 vote on June 23, the council directed staff to seek an attorney general’s opinion on whether it’s legal for the city to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

A previous Gazette opinion cautioned against this unnecessary delay. Missoula, Helena, Butte and Bozeman all have nondiscrimination ordinances similar to the draft the Billings council has discussed. Billings City Attorney Brent Brooks has given the council his opinion that such an ordinance is legal. Despite threats made more than four years ago, no lawsuits have been filed against any of those other city ordinances.

Councilman Denis Pitman’s proposal that the council seek an AG’s opinion was supported by Mayor Tom Hanel, Angela Cimmino, Shaun Brown, Rich McFadden and Mike Yakawich.

Thanks to council members Al Swanson, Ken Crouch, Becky Bird, Brent Cromley and Jani McCall for voting against this delay tactic.

Before the vote, Brooks and City Administrator Tina Volek had wisely counseled council members to be careful what they ask for.

“We are given authority by the state to undertake activities not available to non-charter organizations,” Volek said. “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.”

As stated in this column on June 30, that vote to request an opinion from Attorney General Tim Fox was taken in violation of Montana’s open meeting law. The “council initiative” proposed by Pitman wasn’t on the agenda. The public didn’t have notice that the council would discuss that or vote on it. Citizens were denied the right of participation in public decision making, a right guaranteed in the Montana Constitution and in state statute.

Mayor Tom Hanel told The Gazette Thursday that he will put the issue of notices on council initiatives on a future business meeting agenda.

“I recognize there is a need to improve it,” Hanel said. We welcome Hanel’s acknowledgment that change is needed, but point out that change should start by re-voting on the AG opinion request after putting the issue on a public council agenda that includes opportunity for public comment.

Otherwise, that illegal vote will be used to stall the nondiscrimination ordinance. Billings must not delay in assuring LGBT residents this is a community that welcomes and respects diversity.

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