(HELENA) Helena city leaders have decided to file a motion, supporting the ACLU of Montana’s attempt to block a proposed ballot initiative that would require people to use restrooms, locker rooms and other public facilities based on their sex at birth.
The City Commission voted unanimously Monday to file a motion to intervene in a lawsuit challenging Initiative 183. The ACLU filed the suit in October, in District Court in Cascade County, claiming the measure unconstitutionally discriminates against transgender Montanans.
Supporters of I-183 are currently gathering signatures to put it on the ballot in November 2018. The measure would require that people in schools and other public buildings use the restroom, locker room or other facility designated for their sex, “as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth.” It would also give people the right to sue government agencies if they find someone of the opposite sex in one of those facilities, and prohibit local governments from passing ordinances to let people use the facilities corresponding with their gender identity.
Helena City Attorney Thomas Jodoin said the city is most concerned about the final two provisions, which he said would override Helena’s non-discrimination ordinance and expose the city to unknown financial liability.
Unlike the cities of Bozeman and Missoula, Helena will not directly join the ACLU’s lawsuit as a plaintiff. Instead the city will work with the Montana League of Cities and Towns – and possibly other local governments – to hire an independent attorney. Jodoin said, if the court grants their motion to intervene, they will file a separate brief in the following weeks.
While commissioners approved filing separately from the ACLU, several emphasized their agreement with the group’s claims that I-183 would violate transgender Montanans’ rights.
“We need to also make sure that we don’t sterilize our opposition to this into just that objective status,” said Commissioner Andres Haladay. “We’ve had multiple rounds of non-discrimination ordinance discussions for very specific reasons in this city, because it’s still not clear whether or not certain individuals in this community are protected under state law.”
I-183 is backed by the Montana Family Foundation. Jeff Laszloffy, the group’s president, has denied that the measure would discriminate. He says it would provide for single-stall facilities and other alternatives for people who do not feel comfortable in the facilities designated for them.
Also at Monday’s meeting, the Helena City Commission voted to raise the salaries for the city’s mayor and commissioners. Leaders say the change will open city offices to a wider variety of people.
“I think it’s a recognition of the work the commission does and is going to do on behalf of the citizens of Helena in the future,” said Commissioner Dan Ellison.
Currently, Helena pays the mayor $8,500 a year, plus $150 a month for expenses. Each commissioner receives $6,800 a year and $100 a month for expenses. Now, those salaries will increase by about a third, to $11,000 and $200 for expenses for the mayor and $9,000 plus $150 for expenses for commissioners.
According to the city charter, the raises can’t take effect until January 2020, after the next city election. That means most current officeholders may not benefit. Ellison chose not to run for reelection this year, while Mayor Jim Smith was defeated in his bid for a fifth term. Both leaving office at the end of the month. Commissioners Rob Farris-Olsen and Ed Noonan would each have to win reelection in 2019. Haladay, the lone commissioner whose term continues through 2020, abstained from the vote.
Monday’s meeting was the last for Smith and Ellison, who had been in office for 16 years and eight years respectively. Commissioners and other city leaders offered both men thanks for their years of service.
Smith thanked the Helena community, who he said would remain in good hands with its new mayor and commission.
“There’s no better electorate, no better citizenry, no better group of people anywhere than right here in Helena, Montana,” he said.
As a final token, Smith took home the gavel he used as mayor, which he said former City Commissioner Steve Netschert had carved for him out of apple wood.