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Helena considers suspending open container rules for Big Sky Pride
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Helena considers suspending open container rules for Big Sky Pride

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Big Sky Pride Parade

Over 1,000 people participated in the 2019 Big Sky Pride Parade in Helena.

The ability to carry and consume alcoholic beverages on Helena rights of way during the upcoming Big Sky Pride parade and festivities remains in limbo, after the Helena City Commission on Monday tabled a proposal to temporarily suspend the city's open container ordinance for the event.

The commission hopes to come up with a solution for event organizers with regard to the city code that requires events serving alcohol outdoors to have liability insurance, either by helping Pride organizers secure such insurance or temporarily suspending the requirement.

Previous iterations of Helena's Pride events have centered on a single bar that can extend its liability insurance to the event it's hosting.

Big Sky Pride organizer Kev Hamm told the commission that this year's event incorporates more than a single bar. Hamm said he anticipates the event will be three times the size of previous Pride events, "continuing our growth and making a much bigger impact on the city."

Hamm further asserted that insurance providers he has reached out to will not extend liability insurance to him because he is not the vendor of alcohol. He said the event is unlike other local events such as the Meadowlark Music Festival and Ales for Trails that use alcohol sales as a fundraising mechanism.

"We at Big Sky Pride do not do that," Hamm said. "We want to bring an event to downtown that allows all the downtown businesses that are here year round to become the vendors, multiple, for it so that they all make money in it."

City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk disagreed with Hamm's assertion that the event cannot be insured.

"Sorry to hear he is having such a struggle with the insurance," Harlow-Schalk said. "I've been assured by the team that MMIA (Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority), one of the insurance carriers, actually offers it to the events and did not have to have the vendor relationship in order to issue it. ... It doesn't make sense since I'm getting counter-info as well."

Both Harlow-Schalk and City Attorney Thomas Jodoin expressed concerns over any temporary suspension of city code and requirements for a single event.

Jodoin said he is mainly concerned about the possibility of the city having to pay to defend itself against a lawsuit stemming from the event, which the insurance requirement prevents.

"(I)t's mostly the concerns about defending the costs of the claim," Jodoin said. "I don't believe, short of some showing that the city meddled in the approval and created or was contributory to the situation that caused the (hypothetical) damage, the city's not going to be on the hook for the ultimate damages. It's the cost of the defense and defending the suit in the first place that we're trying to transfer risk to the event holder."

City Commissioner Sean Logan took exception to the entire process.

"I think there's a pretty decent chance that we're bringing something that effects the public and the public's safety forward without them really largely being aware of it," Logan said. "I mean, we received these proposals on Thursday afternoon."

City Commissioner Andres Haladay told Logan he should not use the argument of process to block a resolution he simply does not agree with and argued that the process is going above and beyond what is required.

"(W)e had a discussion at the last meeting, and no it wasn't a public hearing," Haladay said. "In fact, we're here talking tonight. We're having a public discussion on it. We've taken public comment. The suggestion is that we actually set it aside and have additional public comment on it, so the process objection always comes across when you subjectively disagree with it but don't want to say it on substance, so we're done with that. Like, you oppose it and just say it."

City Commissioner Heather O'Loughlin moved to amend one of the two proposals brought forth by staff that resolved to temporarily suspend open container ordinances within the Downtown Urban Renewal District to include dates specific to Pride, July 16 and 17, and table the resolution until the commission's June 21 meeting.

The motion carried on a 4-1 vote with Logan opposing it.

"We could still queue this up and table it and then have the staff continue to work to find other mechanisms if it's waiving insurance (requirements) or what have you," O'Loughlin said.

"We would all be comfortable if there is another route that we just fully table it on June 21 if we don't need to move forward with it."

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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