Talk about a tough city council meeting.
On Monday night, the Billings City Council got more than its average work session of numbers, policies and government minutiae. It hadn't planned on a debate about a policy that hasn't even been written yet.
And that was the easy part of the meeting.
The council also heard a request for a $25,000 use of discretionary funding to "support" the national Not In Our Town conference.
The council said it would consider it formally at a later meeting. But we don't envy the council members and the decision they'll each have to make.
As many folks in Billings know, this was the epicenter of the entire movement. "Not In Our Town" became the rallying cry for the city and its response to horrible hate crimes in 1993. Billings became the example of grassroots community response, and a nonviolent model of how to combat intolerance and racial hatred.
It is indeed gratifying to see the mantra grow into an organization which has promoted the ideals of tolerance, acceptance and diversity. The movement hasn't just been confined to city community development departments or civic do-gooders. Instead, there have been offshoots for elementary schools and college campuses. Billings can be -- and indeed should be -- proud of a movement it helped start.
Now comes the 20th anniversary gathering of what has grown into a national organization and movement. Billings will play host to a national conference in the middle of June. Steering committee organizers for the event approached the council, hoping for a $25,000 donation from the council's discretionary fund.
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As much as we support the good, timely message of this organization, we cannot urge the council to support this request. It's a bad precedent to set, lacks the community inclusion that made the original event so powerful and may be more than just a token gesture of support.
Let's say this again: We support the Not In Our Town conference and believe recent events in Billings news -- news The Gazette continues to cover -- are sad examples of the work still left to do when it comes to diversity, tolerance and a more just society.
However, agreeing with those ideals doesn't mean carte blanche support.
We believe that giving $25,000 of taxpayer money to this particular event would set a poor precedent. Would that mean that every group which holds a national conference would be eligible for taxpayer subsidies? At the $25,000 level? How would the council decide which groups were fund-worthy?
We believe this gathering is like so many which Billings is blessed to attract. This conference will cater primarily to folks who will come here, and benefit from seeing the city where the organization originated. Certainly, folks coming here for the conference will spend money which will help the local economy. However, the benefits and the conference will be largely geared to the participants. It's hard to say the community will see an added $25,000 benefit. If $25,000 of taxpayer money is going to be spent, we have to ask: Wouldn't it benefit the community elsewhere? Wouldn't roads, trails or more police protection be a better use of the money?
Moreover, if the organizers of the event had wanted city support, it's an awkward time to ask -- the event has been scheduled for Billings. This is not a case where the city is bidding on the conference. And, even if that were the case, that would be a task better left to the tourism industry, not city government.
While it would be hard to find many who would disagree with the principles the Not In Our Town organizations promote, city leaders should be cautious about putting funds toward any particular cause. For example, what happened if a group called Not In Our Town wasn't a group promoting inclusiveness, but instead was a group dedicated to keeping people out? We imagine that residents would be up in arms about spending taxpayer money supporting a group like that. This current request before the city seems somehow less objectionable because most people support the group's mission. And yet, the city should be careful in supporting one ideology over another. There are people who legitimately don't want their tax dollars supporting any particular political or social position.
We continue to be concerned that this event is simply a gathering organized by a national group for people mostly outside our current community. There aren't a lot of ways the community will be included in this -- just like so many groups which visit Billings for annual meetings, but don't have lasting ties here. To us, that underscores something very important about the now and 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, Billings' community response to hate crimes was organic. It seemed to spring from the entire community. This gathering this year is an organized event -- not an outpouring.
Finally, the $25,000 request was requested as a show of support for the gathering. And, indeed we hope the city council does everything within its normal power to support the group in June. That could include allowing street closures, holding events at city-owned property, or even having city leaders welcome folks. However, $25,000 seems to go beyond support. $25,000 seems like the city would be taking an ownership role in the event, not just supporting it.
One of the key ideas to grow out of this very important movement was the idea of treating everyone fairly. So, in the interests of treating all groups fairly and equitably, we don't believe the city council can or should use its discretionary funds for this purpose.