A former Billings City Council candidate who has inserted himself oafishly into this year’s council race has, purely by accident, exposed a general misunderstanding of how that legislative body conducts its business.
Brian Kenat, a Tea Party Republican who unsuccessfully ran against Ward 3 Councilwoman Becky Bird in 2013, has been calling council candidates to sound them out on their beliefs—and to badger them if he didn’t like their views.
As we reported last week, two of the candidates called by Kenat said he appeared to be mainly interested in how they stood on the nondiscrimination ordinance, or NDO, which was voted down last year but could come up for reconsideration after the fall election. The NDO would have extended basic civil rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Billings.
Even when Kenat asked the candidates about the city budget, it was mostly to point out how little time had been spent on consideration of the budget, compared with all the hundreds of hours spent on the NDO. He said the council spent one session on the budget and 18 on the NDO.
First off, that’s not true. The council did formally consider and vote on the budget at one meeting, but that was preceded by numerous work sessions at which the budgets for all city departments were presented in some detail. Perhaps Kenat was not aware of those meetings?
I didn’t attend this year’s budget discussions, but I missed few of them during the many years I covered City Hall, and it was a rare meeting that attracted more than a handful of department heads and one or two council regulars.
For the City Council members who sat through those sessions, bombarded with facts and figures, it was always damned hard to make any serious cuts to the budget. No matter what some people would like you to believe, there is not much fat in the city budget. If you want to make cuts that save more than a few bucks, relatively speaking, you have to start cutting employees, programs and services.
That looks easy from the outside. Ask anyone who has ever served on the council how difficult it is on the inside. Those kinds of cuts historically have been made only when the city and the state are in the throes of a recession or steep economic downturn.
The last time I looked, that’s not how the local or state economy looked.
As for the NDO, is it any wonder that so much time was spent on it? The budget discussions involved the testimony of a few citizens. The NDO drew hundreds of people, pro and con, to City Council chambers every time it was on the agenda.
Mayor Tom Hanel, who ultimately voted against the NDO, could have shortened those meetings by restricting testimony to those with something new to say and asking the rest for a show of hands. There is no absolute right for people to speak at City Council meetings. Like all legislative bodies, the council makes its own rules for listening to public testimony, and the mayor can use his discretion to keep the proceedings on track.
Public hearings, whatever else they are designed to do, are supposed to help council members come to a decision, not to bludgeon them with endlessly repetitive testimony or to benumb their brains, which is what the NDO hearings seemed to have done.
Sitting through many of those hearings myself, I got the distinct impression that some council members, afraid to frankly state their own beliefs or to come to a decision, took refuge behind a false respect for public testimony instead of having the courage to take the subject on directly and quickly.
If that is how the subject is going to be dealt with the next time around, why bother bringing it up at all?
As Kenat’s meddling in the election makes clear, opponents of the NDO are gearing up for the next fight. Having lost the war, with the recent Supreme Court affirmation of the right to same-sex marriage, die-hards are looking forward to small, local battles.
They will fight all the harder now, to make up for what they consider the ruinous consequences of the high court decision. Never mind that they are not able to demonstrate harm to anyone, except for a few mythical bakers and photographers who supposedly are at imminent risk of being hauled off to concentration camps.
Rather than looking ahead to a new fight over the NDO, supporters would be well advised to duplicate Kenat’s passion, if not his techniques, and work to elect a solid majority in favor of such a law.
That majority could then pass the NDO without enduring the endless hearings of which Kenat rightly complains. Here’s hoping that supporters of the NDO are up to the task.