HELENA — The Helena City Commission has approved a limited suspension of the city’s rules on outdoor consumption of alcohol, which means next month’s Big Sky Pride events downtown will be able to allow open containers.
Currently, city ordinances prohibit people from having an open container or drinking alcohol in parks, streets and other city property. On Monday evening, commissioners voted 4-1 to temporarily suspend those prohibitions, for people participating in events within the Downtown Urban Renewal District on July 16 and July 17.
The alcohol rules can be waived for groups organizing events, if they receive a permit from the city. As part of that permitting process, the city requires organizers to get liability insurance to cover any potential damages or other issues arising from alcohol consumption.
Kev Hamm, president of Big Sky Pride, says that model works if the organizers are vending alcohol themselves. However, their intention was for the existing downtown businesses to be able to serve those attending the Pride events.
“What we’re asking for is literally just a defined space for a specific amount of time – so that everybody knows that, in that space, it is a big party, but you can go to the local businesses and support them while supporting us and having a good time,” he said.
Hamm said the insurance options the city outlined for them were all more appropriate for alcohol sellers, so they asked the city to waive the open container rules – allowing them to move forward with their existing liability insurance.
City commissioners said they were interested in finding a way to allow Big Sky Pride to go forward with their plans. At their meeting on June 7, city staff presented the commission with the option of repealing the open container ordinance altogether, either in the Downtown Urban Renewal District or across the city as a whole. However, commissioners said that proposal went far beyond what they wanted to do.
Eventually, the commission voted to modify the proposal – to only suspend the open container rules on the days Pride events will be held – and delay the discussion two weeks to give more time to look at whether there was a way for organizers to get appropriate insurance.
During Monday’s meeting, City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk described a type of “event host insurance” she said Big Sky Pride might be able to secure. However, Hamm said he had never been told about that type of insurance before, and that he was willing to look into it, but concerned about the limited time left to get the event approved.
“We need to get this done,” he said.
Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin said leaders had hoped city staff and organizers might be able to work together on other options, but in light of the short amount of time and the importance of the Pride events, she was willing to move forward with a limited suspension.
“This is a logical option,” she said.
Commissioner Sean Logan voted against the temporary suspension, saying he didn't believe this was the proper way to make this kind of change in policy.
While this decision only applied to a single event, Commissioner Emily Dean said she hoped the city would take a broader look going forward, so they are not making this type of decision on a case-by-case basis.
Hamm echoed that, saying he wanted the city to consider a more robust process for allowing downtown events to waive open container rules.
“Because then we can have more events, and who doesn’t want to have our beautiful downtown used and celebrated?” he said. “That’s the beauty of this.”
Hamm said, regardless of the commission’s decision, many other Big Sky Pride events will be going on across Helena that week. You can find more information at the group’s website.