By Tim Leeds
Hill County now has an ordinance regulating large group functions.
The ordinance, signed by the Hill County Commission in October, went into effect Monday after a 30-day waiting period. It requires that anyone planning a function with more than 500 people gathered for eight hours or more, or a function with 1,000 people or more for any length of time, apply for a permit from the county at least 120 days before the function.
The commissioners originally planned to sign the ordinance following a public meeting on Sept. 4, but at the meeting Commissioner Doug Kaercher said the public comment period would be extended and testimony opposing the ordinance would be considered.
Commissioner Pat Conway said Monday the commission received both positive and negative comments on the ordinance before the commissioners signed it. Most people thought the ordinance made a lot of sense after it was explained to them, he said.
Kaercher said in August that the ordinance is intended to protect the taxpayers of Hill County from paying for extra expense arising from problems like property damage or injuries that are caused by a poorly planned event. It is not intended to infringe on the right to assemble or have a group gathering, he said.
Chuck Grant, member of the executive board of the Hill County Libertarian Party, said Monday he thought the ordinance wasn't going to be passed in the form presented at the Sept. 4 meeting.
"I had the understanding they were going to rewrite it," he said. "They kind of slipped that by us."
Grant testified in opposition to the ordinance at the public meeting.
Jim Edwards, chair of the Libertarian Party, said he thought there would be another public meeting before the ordinance was signed. Some of his colleagues are looking into the legality of the ordinance being signed without another meeting, he added.
Edwards said he thinks the commission should have given the public more notice that the ordinance was being approved.
"I frankly think a lot of people should be upset with this," he said. "A lot of people could be planning large group functions that could run afoul of the requirements of this legislation."
About five people attended the Sept. 4 meeting. Four testified, all in opposition to the ordinance. The ordinance presented on Sept. 4 was a revision of an ordinance presented at a public meeting on May 9, where the commissioners heard testimony against that version.
Conway said there was significant opposition to the ordinance presented on May 9, which would have required permits for groups of 350 or more to gather for three hours or more. There wasn't as much opposition to the ordinance which went into effect Monday, he said.
Kaercher said most of the comments outside of the Sept. 9 meeting were positive.
Grant said the ordinance violates his constitutional rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to assemble peaceably, and Grant said he plans to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment.
Edwards said the 10th Amendment provides the state and local governments the authority to regulate any area not prohibited to them by the Constitution, which allows the group-gathering ordinance. He said the ordinance is not unconstitutional, just a bad ordinance.
"I think, frankly, it will be harmful legislation and will not do what they think it will do," he said.
The ordinance requires that planners of a group function satisfy various county officials that planning and facilities are sufficient to provide for safety and sanitation needs. Specific areas deemed to have sufficient facilities, such as the Hill County Fairgrounds or the city of Havre, are excluded from the permit requirements.