Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect what transpired at the June 7 Helena City Commission meeting.
HELENA — The Helena City Commission heard two proposals at their June 7 meeting that would have significantly changed restrictions on open containers of alcohol in the city. However, commissioners and Mayor Wilmot Collins said what was presented wasn’t what they were looking to accomplish.
The look at the open-container law came about from Big Sky Pride having difficulty getting liability insurance for their two-day event. Big Sky Pride is one of the largest events held in Helena and has been rapidly growing each year in size.
Organizer Kev Hamm told the commission the problem they’re running into is they’ve been repeatedly denied insurance because they multiple establishments serving as alcohol vendors for the event.
Currently, an event needs to obtain a permit from the city and liability insurance to host an event that allows open-container.
Two options were presented Monday evening that would have repealed or amended the City of Helena’s open-container ordinance. The first would completely repeal all open container restrictions in city limits. The second would keep the current ordinance intact but would create an exception for the Downtown Urban Renewal District which extends from Centennial Park to where S. Park Avenue meets S. Cruse Street.
The City Commission expressed frustration over what was presented to them and said the intent was never to fully repeal the open-container law, but merely have a temporary suspension of the ordinance for the days of Big Sky Pride should they not be able to get proper insurance. Mayor Collins described the situation Monday evening as being “blindsided.”
The City Commission ended up amending the Downtown Urban Renewal District option to only be effective on the dates of Big Sky Pride. They then tabled the proposal for June 21, with the hope Big Sky Pride will be able to obtain insurance before they need to make a motion on the proposal.
There have been other efforts in recent years to repeal open-container restrictions in all or part of the City on a more permanent situation, with efforts backed by several downtown businesses and organizations.
Residents MTN spoke with residents along the walking mall about their thoughts on if Helena should repeal or amend the open-container ordinance. Of the around 20 people we spoke with, there was a fairly equal split of supporters, opponents and those who were indifferent either way.
Supporters said it would help increase traffic to downtown businesses and create a more vibrant area.
“I think it would be an advance towards civilization. I think we have demonstrated we can handle this downtown, that we can put in place regulations and restrictions so it doesn’t get out of hand,” said Martin Richard, co-owner of Martin’s Wines.
Richard says there’s a lot of reasons to avoid going downtown, such as finding parking. In his opinion, allowing open containers of alcohol would be a reason for people to come and seek out downtown. He’d love to see someone get a beer from down the street and stroll along the area to get food or play some chess.
“Sometimes the people that oppose this, they sometimes remind me of H. L. Mencken's definition of a puritan, ‘Someone with a haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy,’” added Richard.
Opponents MTN spoke with raised concerns over the potential increase of drunk driving, unwanted social behavior, how it would work near schools and playgrounds and potential litter.
“I’m completely opposed to it,” said Stephanie Ballenger a peer support specialist. “The reason being is I believe those laws protect other citizens and keep people in check when it comes to drinking out in public. It keeps people safe. It keeps them in areas like the bars and like where you’re supposed to drink.”
Even among supporters of allowing open containers of alcohol, most wanted to see some form of restriction on where it was allowed or hours when it could be allowed if open-container was ever to be repealed.
Butte is Montana’s only major city that doesn’t have an open-container ban. However, in 2013 the Butte Council of Commissioners approved an amendment to the open-container law, prohibiting open containers of alcohol during the hours of 2:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. The reasoning for the restrictive hours was to cut down on vandalism and acts of violence.
Helena City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk said the majority of citations currently from open-container violations in the city involve homeless individuals.
The Helena City Commission is slated to hear two proposals at their June 7 meeting that would significantly change restrictions on open containers of alcohol.
Two options are being presented Monday evening. The first would completely repeal all open container restrictions in city limits. The second would keep the current ordinance intact but would create an exception for the Downtown Urban Renewal District which extends from Centennial Park to where S. Park Avenue meets S. Cruse Street.
There have been other efforts in recent years to repeal open container restrictions in all or part of the City which had been back by several downtown businesses. Supporters of those efforts said it would help increase traffic to downtown businesses and create a more vibrant area.
Some have even citing Butte’s open container policies to show that it can work. While Butte allows open containers in the city, they also prohibit the practice between 2:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. The proposed changes to Helena currently don't have time of day restrictions.
Past opponents of repealing the City’s open container ordnance have said it may lead to more rowdy behavior downtown and litter.
If the Commission does approve either of the proposed changes to the open container ordinance, drunk and disorderly laws would remain unchanged and Montana state law prohibits anyone from having an open container in their vehicle.
A full link to the agenda for the June 7 City of Helena Commission meeting, and the Zoom link to participate remotely, can be found here.