By Crystal Thompson
A group of concerned citizens gathered on Wednesday to confront Hill County Commissioners regarding a proposed county ordinance that would establish regulations for large group functions.
The group gathered at a public hearing for the ordinance's second reading to question County Commissioners on the wording, purpose and exceptions of the ordinance.
County ordinance No. 01-68 was adopted by the Hill County Commission on April 26 as a public health safety and security measure established to govern gatherings of 350 or more people gathered in a common area for three hours or more.
At Wednesday's public hearing for the ordinance's second reading, Commissioner Pat Conway told a concerned audience that the ordinance originated with recommendations from other Montana commissioners who adopted similar ordinances after losing thousands of dollars when large groups damaged public areas. Clean up, repair and security for events like outdoor concerts or mass celebrations or festivals costs the county a lot of money, especially if there is no guarantee that the area will be left the way it was found, Conway said.
Opponents of the ordinance attacked its wording and questioned the intent in the instances of private gatherings such as weddings or reunions. Conway told the opponents that pursuant to Section 6 of the ordinance, Hill County may exempt such functions from the ordinance's requirements.
"We took great pains to include exemptions in this ordinance," Conway told the group. He added that large gatherings at established areas such as auditoriums or fairgrounds would earn exemptions as well, as they furnish sufficient facilities.
Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, told the commissioners that she was "on the fence" over the ordinance. Vandeberg's main concern was how the ordinance would affect Chamber activities.
Commissioner Doug Kaercher questioned whether any Chamber-sponsored activities would fall under the ordinance's definition of "350 or more persons simultaneously gathered in a common area for 3 hours or more". Vandeberg said that she felt several current and future activities may fall under that definition, and the wording of the document may not adequately exempt positive community activities.
"The exemption area needs to be more defined," Vandeberg said.
Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson and Hill County Sanitarian Clay Vincent were two of the ordinance's proponents who attended the hearing. Olson agreed with the security and safety issues addressed by the ordinance, but expressed concern over the self governance issue that may come about in the future between the city and county if the two entities were unable to agree on the approval of a function.
Vincent expressed his support of the ordinance, saying that it is key to plan large events to insure that adequate facilities and security will be available.
"When there's five kegs and two restrooms, it just doesn't work out," Vincent told the group.
James Edwards, professor of economics and chairman of the Havre area Libertarian Party read a written testimony opposing the ordinance. Edwards expressed great concern over the authority of county governments to dictate gatherings.
"This ordinance clearly aims at regulating, including the power to deny rights of assembly on private property and I do not believe you have or should have that authority at all," Edwards told the commissioners.
"There can be 350 people or more at the mall or at K-Mart at any given time," Edwards said, "... and believe me, they don't have a bathroom for every 40 people. I know you say you will grant them an exemption, but you don't have to and that arbitrary power is dangerous."
Other comments made by members of the audience questioned the ordinance's ability to infringe on people's right of assembly and the rights of the commissioners to decide which activities receive exemptions and which do not.
"You set yourself up to be kings," said Charles Grant, member of the local Libertarian Party.
The commissioners agreed to leave the public hearing open for comment to allow further testimony from those unable to attend yesterday's meeting.
On Thursday Commissioner Conway said that the reason for the public hearing was to gain input from the public, and the commissioners appreciate the information they received.
Conway said that the ordinance was in no way meant to put a stop to gatherings such as weddings or community festivals. "That was not our purpose," he said. "A lot of the comments at yesterday's hearing were valid, and we will continue to work on this ordinance."