Emerging from across the spectrum of Billings’ political, civic and business communities are a growing number of people interested in making sure that voters understand exactly what the ten-year revisit of the city’s charter is all about – and to encourage people to vote “Yes.” The issue will be placed on a ballot in June 2024.

Dave Goodridge, one of the leaders of the informal group that has met a couple of times now, said last week that no matter which way a person votes, he wants to make sure they understand what the vote is all about. It was noted numerous times in the course of discussion, that in the past people have voted against reviewing the City Charter simply because there is a small temporary tax associated with it and many people have a tendency to vote against anything that means more taxes – especially if they don’t understand the purpose.

Attending the meeting was Scott Aspenlieder, a civil engineer and local business owner, who announced that he is going to run for city council. Also expressing strong support for revisiting the city’s charter has been current city council woman, Jennifer Owen.

A number of city council members have also apparently indicated that they too would support reviewing the city charter. Goodridge pointed out that if a majority of citizens vote “yes” to review the charter, there needs to be “strong council members” to carry it through, “so, understand who you are voting for.”

The government of the City of Billings functions under a Charter that establishes a unique realm of laws to govern it.  A charter is something of a bubble, within whose boundaries citizens choose how to govern themselves in ways that often supersede state laws or suspend some citizen rights to create a governing structure, to determine how it selects leadership, how it taxes, etc.

It’s been decades since any changes have been made to the Charter for the City of Billings, during which time many things have changed —- most especially the city has grown significantly. “It’s time!” contend those in the group.

It is required by state law that every ten years a governmental body functioning under a charter allow the citizens to vote as to whether they want to continue for another ten years under the charter as it is, or whether they want to do a study of the charter to consider changes.

Only one time did the ten-year vote result in calling for a study review committee and the committee returned with the recommendation to make no changes.

A one-time property tax of $6 to $9 would be assessed to pay for the cost of doing a study, if that is what the citizens indicate they want.

If most citizens vote “no” the existing Charter and city laws remain in force. If a majority votes “yes” a review committee is created to study the Charter, solicit public input and make whatever changes they believe is necessary. The finished product is then put before the citizens for another vote.

The group of citizens – so far functioning without any formal name – understand that they have about a year to get the word out. How to do that in the most effective way possible was basically the focus of discussion. They identified organizations in Billings that they could ask to support the effort and to participate in educating the public. It was noted that the Billings Association of Realtors has already made official its support of reevaluating the City’s charter. And, from the discussion within the group, it sounded like preliminary inquiries have elicited a positive response from most groups.

Whatever the citizens’ group does, it must do with what is, so far, a “zero” budget. So whatever support and cooperation they can get from other organizations will be essential. Getting recognizable and respected people in the community to come out in favor of voting “yes” will also be important, and it was noted that they need to create a one-page sheet that provides answers to basic questions, and to be able to answer questions themselves.

Goodridge said that he believes that this ten-year citizen referendum is important because it does impact the city for the next ten years and it presents the easiest way to initiate a Charter review. State law provides for two other approaches to consider changes to the Charter, but they are more complicated and costly.

This is the time to do it, according to all those in attendance. Another meeting will be held soon. (Anyone interested in being notified about the meeting can contact Goodridge at dave@billingscommercialrealestate.com.)


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