At the end of the longest City Council meeting in Billings’ history, the council majority did the right thing. They voted to start reviewing a draft nondiscrimination ordinance at the June 16 work session.
The council convened at 6:30 p.m. and spent nearly two hours handling various city business items, including the annual budget totaling $278 million. For most of the next nine hours, the 11 council members discussed the possible NDO and heard from 150 speakers on both sides of the debate.
It was gratifying to see that the discussion remained civil, even though people were passionate about their viewpoints. Advance planning allowed the overflow crowd to be accommodated in City Hall and the First Congregational Church across the street.
We commend Mayor Tom Hanel for changing his previous vote and supporting consideration of the NDO draft. It’s especially difficult to make a shift on a highly controversial vote, but Hanel did it because he knew it was right. By stating his position at the beginning of the public hearing, Hanel let the crowd know upfront how the long meeting was likely to end.
Thanks to Hanel, Cimmino
Ultimately, Hanel and Ward 2 Councilwoman Angela Cimmino joined the five council members who had wanted move forward with the NDO all along. We thank Cimmino for supporting the ordinance consideration she voted for in January.
However, the 7-4 vote after 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, is just the beginning of the process to consider a city ordinance. The city staff will have the draft available for the council and the public to read on Friday. Public comments will be taken at the 5:30 p.m. June 16 work session.
If the council decides to proceed, the ordinance would be placed on a regular meeting agenda and another public hearing would be held then. The council could decide to revise or reject the ordinance. If the council majority approves it once, it would still have to pass a second and final vote two or more weeks after the first vote.
It should be noted that this Monday-Tuesday ultra-marathon meeting was necessary only because six members voted two weeks earlier to stop work on the NDO they directed staff to draft back in January. If Councilman Shaun Brown had not made the cease-work motion and five other members had not joined him, the budget would have been the big news at Monday’s meeting, and the NDO draft would have been presented on June 16, just as it now is scheduled to be.
Equal rights for LGBT folks
Some Billings business leaders, pastors and friends and family of LGBT folks have spoken up for adopting a non-discrimination ordinance. Even Councilman Rich McFadden, who opposes an NDO, said he believes LGBT people in Billings “have a rough time.” But McFadden argued that the ordinance would put “so much government into the lives of our churches, our businesses and homes.”
To the contrary, a well-written non-discrimination ordinance will be no more burdensome than existing guarantees of basic human rights. A person should not be denied a job he is qualified for because he is gay, nor because of his race. A family should not be denied housing because they are lesbians any more than they can be denied based on their religious beliefs. Those are the rights that the ordinance should protect.
The hours of testimony, hundreds of emails and letters to council members are powerful evidence that discrimination exists in our city. It is time for the Billings City Council to take a principled stand for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.