After a marathon meeting that lasted until well after sunrise, the Billings City Council voted early Tuesday to proceed with consideration of a nondiscrimination ordinance.
The vote was 7-4 against a motion by Councilman Shaun Brown to instruct city staff to stop work on preparing a draft NDO for council consideration.
The council vote came shortly before 6 a.m. — 11½ hours after the meeting began at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
The council is now expected to receive a draft of the proposed ordinance at its work session next Monday. At its work session last week, the council voted 6-5, also on a motion by Brown, to instruct staff to cease work on the ordinance.
An NDO would prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identification or expression.
It basically would add several new classes of people to those already protected on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity and so on.
But because formal actions are not supposed to be taken at work sessions, another vote was scheduled for last night’s meeting. After more than 100 people spoke for and against the ordinance — even though, remember, no ordinance had yet been drafted — the council took its vote.
Two people changed their votes this go-round: Mayor Tom Hanel and City Councilwoman Angela Cimmino. They joined Brent Cromley, Becky Bird, Jani McCall, Al Swanson and Ken Crouch in voting against Brown’s motion.
Joining Brown in voting to cease work on an NDO were Mike Yakawich, Denis Pitman and Rich McFadden, who was by far the most outspoken critic of the ordinance at the Monday-Tuesday meeting.
The meeting might have been the longest one in the history of the City Council.
In 1998, when the council voted on an annexation involving the Mormon temple on the West End, a public hearing attended by 850 people dragged the meeting out till 4 a.m.
At the time, nobody could remember ever having heard of a council meeting that lasted so long.
In the course of this latest overnight meeting, about 165 people signed the roster stating they intended to testify. How many of them actually spoke? Your Last Best News reporter will not hazard a guess, his brain having turned to mush sometime after about 2 a.m.
It’s safe to say that more than 100 people spoke, and many of them used the full three minutes allowed by council rules. And if council members chose to ask speakers follow-up questions, they could go on for four, five, even 10 minutes. On top of that, Hanel called for a total of five recesses, the first four of which lasted nearly 25 minutes each.
Meanwhile, people waiting to testify filled the hallway outside council chambers, spilled down two flights of stairs and out onto the sidewalk in front of City Hall.
Overflow crowds also watched the meeting, on Community 7 Television, in a conference room on the ground floor of City Hall. Still others watched the proceedings across Third Avenue North at the First Congregational United Church of Christ.
The church was also the scene of a pre-meeting rally that drew hundreds of NDO supporters, many of them wearing bright-orange “We don’t discriminate” T-shirts.
Perhaps because the rally delayed the supporters’ arrival, opponents of the ordinance filled nearly all the 140 seats in council chambers and so dominated the first several hours of the public hearing. As the night wore on, the ranks of the opponents thinned and the orange-clad crowd slowly filled the room.
If you’ve followed the debate at all, there wasn’t much new to be heard in the long, long public hearing.
Opponents of the ordinance warned that it would extend “special rights” to a small group of people; that it was part of the “homosexual agenda”; that it would fill public restrooms with transgender molesters; that it would infringe on the free practice of religious beliefs; and that it was part of a nationwide push by the American Civil Liberties Union to subvert the will of the people as expressed by their state legislatures.
Supporters of the NDO said they were merely seeking equality and fairness; that they were only asking for rights already enjoyed by most citizens; that the effort was mostly homegrown; and that it would not interfere with anyone’s religious beliefs or practices.
David Otey, whose wife, Susan, is a pastor at Grace United Methodist Church, said “devastation” has been “dished out to” to LGBT people, and “it breaks my heart to see how much is dished out by the church.”
Jeff Laszloffy, a former state legislator and head of the Montana Family Foundation, said that in the four Montana cities where NDOs have already been adopted, not a single person has been charged, much less convicted, of violating the ordinances.
There is no such thing as a law that reduces the incidence of crime to zero, he said, which shows that there wasn’t a problem to begin with.
“We now have a rift that will take years to heal,” Laszloffy said, referring to the contentious debate on the ordinance. “And for what? To solve a nonexistent problem.”
Jennifer Strong, who identified herself as the mother of three daughters, said she worried that her children could be subject to assaults in public restrooms if the ordinance were enacted.
“Kill this ordinance now,” she urged.
The proposed ordinance is the only item on the agenda for Monday’s work session.
Although council members have already received an estimated 1,000 emails on the subject, plus many letters and phone calls, not to mention all the many hours of public testimony, in a way the debate has barely begun.
It could be a long summer.