In an apparent rebuke to the Billings Chamber of Commerce and its practice of endorsing city council candidates, one council member is proposing that the city stop doing business with any organization that endorses candidates.
Reg Gibbs, who will step down from the council at the end of the year after not seeking re-election this fall, proposed the code change at the end of the council's meeting on Tuesday.
"This is not a real broad initiative to ban any kind of endorsement by community organizations," Gibbs said Tuesday night. "This is strictly with entities that we have a partnership with."
The language in his proposed city code amendment would bar organizations that do business with the city from endorsing candidates. Should an organization choose to endorse anyway, the proposed code change would require the city to sever its contract with that organization.
The proposal also stipulates that council members who have been endorsed by an organization recuse themselves from any decision that might impact the endorsing organization.
The potential move brings up a number of legal issues.
Mike Meloy, who runs a law firm in Helena and represents the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, wondered how practical the proposed code would be.
"In order for the city to sustain this policy, it would need to show it had a compelling interest in interfering with speech and associational interests," he said by email on Friday. "It could likely adopt a policy that would withstand strict scrutiny by requiring pre-voting disclosure of prior endorsements, but it can’t be a mandatory prohibition, and I can’t think of any argument that would support the contractual ban."
Brent Brooks, the city's attorney, expressed some consternation about the idea at Tuesday's meeting.
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"We will need to take a close look at this," Brooks said. "I do have some concerns about it."
Brooks said the job of his department was to keep the city out of legal trouble and that with this proposal he sees legal trouble.
Complicating the matter is how the city would define a contractual relationship. Labor unions associated with city employees — including police officers, firefighters and pipe fitters — have at times in the past endorsed candidates.
Brooks warned the council that severing legal contracts with any organization as it was laid out in Gibbs' proposal would inevitably lead to "endless lawsuits." Political speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Gibbs was traveling Friday and was unavailable for comment, but at Tuesday's meeting he explained some of his reasoning for bringing forward the proposed change. He said that he'd heard from constituents who thought it wrong that candidates backed by the Chamber of Commerce were allowed to vote on issues related to the chamber.
Gibbs said there needed to be clearer guidelines for the city and for the organizations with which the city works, particularly the chamber.
"They're trying to influence that election so that they can get the person they've endorsed," he said.
Gibbs brought forward the proposed code amendment as a council initiative, a procedural move that allows council members to bring up potential business items and lobby to get them on a future agenda. Once an item is on an agenda, the council can take action on it.
After discussing the proposal Tuesday night, the council voted 6-5 to make it an agenda item, thus allowing for a full debate and then a vote on the code change at a future meeting.