ICYMI

I thought the following comment on the City Commission post, below, was worth elevating:

Don I would agree with you. I was there last night, I’ve been researching this and I think the city’s got something up their sleeves. Ordinance 4138 is far too inclusive. So is Ordinance 3149. There’s more to come too, with City Attorney Cik on his “quest.”

A quest that I believe exists to re-write the Muni Code to give the commissioners more power. There’s more to come at the next commission meeting, with Ordinance 3154. My understanding is that one will change the public notice of competitive bidding process to eliminate publication in a newspaper. It appears to give them the opportunity to posts in any manner they see fit.

Back to Ordinance 3148 which passed last night. The way it reads, someone could be banned from city property for ONE YEAR for ANY violation of the ANY part of the municipal code, the Montana Code Annotated OR IF THE CITY MANAGER OR HIS DESIGNEE DECIDES YOU’VE BEEN DISORDERLY OR ABUSIVE.

The poster claims the city gave mostly sensible arguments for Ordinance 3148. There’s no sensible argument for an ordinance that gives this extreme amount of power. It’s bad enough that the city included the whole Municipal Code and the MCA in this ordinance. The way it reads now, you could be banned from city property if you, for example, are caught of driving with a cell phone, although city officials will tell you they don’t intend to use it that way. I just can’t trust their word.

The “or” clause in this ordinance is particularly troubling.

I don’t think it takes a genius to see the many ways the city could abuse your constitutional rights with this one. It’s especially scary that the City Manager or his designee has carte blanche to determine the definition of disorderly or abusive. City officials claimed they’ll use the disorderly conduct definition of the Montana Code Annotated as a “guideline.” Their claims are only words; there’s no requirement in the ordinance that they keep their word.

According to the Great Falls Tribune, January 17, 2017, the ordinance came about because of an incident at the library.
The proposed amendment was prompted by an incident that occurred in October, when a library employee was struck in the arm by an unruly patron.

From the Tribune: ““There was a man in the library who appeared to be sleeping,” library manager Kathy Mora said Tuesday. “Our written policies state you can’t be sleeping in the library. One of our staff members approached him. We do not touch any patrons and we do not get too close to them. She attempted to wake him, and it took her a couple of attempts by speaking to him. When he awoke he jumped out of his chair and hit her on the arm.”

Mora said library staff immediately called the police, but the man had left the area before officers arrived.

“We did not know his name at that time, and they could not located him,” Mora said. “She (the library employee) declined to press charges.”
Mora said the man was banned from the library premises after he returned two weeks later. While the proposed city trespass ordinance would not have measurably altered the outcome of the incident in October, Mora described it as “another tool that we can use on city property when these types of occasions arise.””

In both the first reading of the ordinance in January and again last night, much was made about this library incident. Yet, as the Tribune article suggests, the ordinance wouldn’t have made much difference. So then, why is the city using this incident as their proverbial last straw? Doesn’t Great Falls already have public nuisance and loitering laws that would have applied in this case? If it was really about the library incident, why wasn’t the ordinance limited to problems on city property? Why does it include all of Great Falls ordinances and all of the MCA? There’s really no reason to be this imprecise when it comes to the law.

I’ve seen some city commission meetings get a bit disorderly. Are they going to ban people from city commission meetings when they feel they’re disorderly (i.e. saying something they don’t like)? Oh wait, the city already tried that. Remember the Mayor Stebbins-Susan Overfield fiasco? The city paid a cool half-million for violating Overfield’s rights. You would think that since the city already bought the t-shirt on that one, they’d be a bit more careful about an ordinance that could chill free speech and public assembly. Except now, with the passing of Ordinance 3148, they can throw you out for a whole year. Things could get interesting.

City officials further postulated that ordinance is required because unlike private property where law enforcement can ask trespassers to leave, police can’t ask someone to leave city property.

This idea was again echoed by City Commissioner Tracy Houck, who claimed the ordinance was necessary for public safety for people using city property. She told the room that her son is involved in many activities at the Rec Center and if there’s trouble there, the police currently can’t force anyone to leave.

Really Commissioner Houck? Really City of Great Falls? That isn’t my experience. I’ve witnessed police force people to leave several city properties—including the parks hosting Alive at Five, Elk’s Riverside Park and the skatepark, so that argument is invalid.

There was some talk at the meeting about an appeal process for someone who feels they’ve been unjustly banned from city property. It didn’t appear as part of the ordinance language and in my quick perusal of the Municipal Code, I haven’t found anything remotely related. If there’s someone out there that knows where I would find the appeal process for being banned from city property, please respond as soon as possible. I’m probably going to need it 😉

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Gregg Smith
Gregg Smith is a Great Falls attorney and businessperson. He writes a monthly column for the Great Falls Tribune.

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