With requests growing, Missoula County looks for policy on use of the courthouse
Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
With the number of requests growing to use the Missoula County Courthouse for special promotions, political events and causes, commissions on Thursday asked staff to draft a policy guiding future uses.
In doing so, they'll seek to strike a balance between keeping “the people's house” open to public use while getting ahead of any potential conflicts, such as hateful speech or distasteful campaigns.
“My concerns are that we make sure this public space is available to the public, but we're never put in a position that the county appears to be aligning with any one specific set of use,” said commissioner Josh Slotnick. “I'm also concerned that there are folks out there who hold views that are really distasteful to the broad mainstream that would get brought into any courthouse facility.”
The courthouse in recent years has been used for a number of public events, such as protests on the lawn, illuminating the courthouse facade in colors to promote a cause, or filming a blockbuster HBO series.
But the number and type of requests are growing, including a recent request to use a courtroom to film a campaign promotion. Without a policy in place, commissioners on Thursday agreed to allow the candidate to use the room, at least for now.
Slotnick earlier in the week sought to keep the county's courtrooms free of political events.
“My gut impulse on this is that I really appreciate the courtroom as a symbol of impartiality, and I'm nervous that it gets associated with any political campaign,” he said. “I would feel much better to say no to all, that our courtrooms aren't going to be used for symbols of politics.”
But other county staff cautioned that without a policy in place, it would be a slippery slope to deny use of the facility on an ad-hoc basis. In the past, the county has been lenient on use of the facility.
“This has been done historically, and if there's going to be a change in opinion, I think before declining a request that matches past uses, that a policy should be announced in advance,” said deputy county attorney Brian West.
The debate surfaced in earnest last August when the Open Aid Alliance sought to illuminate the courthouse with purple light as part of a national day aimed at overdose awareness.
The year before, the courthouse lawn was also occupied by the Black Lives Matter movement for several weeks. Their presence was soon joined by Trump supporters brandishing firearms and claiming they were there to protect protesters.
Recently, the Missoula Democratic Socialists of America used the facility to denounce America's policy on Russia.
The county itself has used the courthouse as a statement, most recently lighting the clock tower in blue and yellow as a visible symbol of support for Ukraine. So far, the requests have been rather innocuous, but if the facility is open to one cause, then the county fears it would be hypocritical to deny access to another group, even if was along the lines of the KKK, the Proud Boys or some other hateful fringe element.
“One of the challenges we run into is that we end up talking about uses in small bits and slices,” said West. “We haven't sat down to focus on how Missoula County wants to approach using our public house for public purposes.”
Another question the county hopes to clarify is when it would charge to use the facility. In many cases, opening access of the building, be it during or after hours, requires staff time, electricity and other costs, county staff said.
The county charged the “Yellowstone” production for its use of the facility.
“We didn't write a contract to make money off of Yellowstone,” said facilities manager Jason Hauser. “We wrote the contract with Yellowstone to offset the costs to the taxpayers. This topic will grow.”
Other political campaigns have been charged for their use of the facility, but some never paid. If a charge will be applied, commissioners believe it should be applied universally. They also believe the county should get paid before to offset costs to the public.
“Unless said parties agree to our terms, then we don't need to allow them into the facility as opposed to after the fact, submitting an invoice for services rendered,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “The time has come for a more deliberative process.”