Editors Note: This story has been updated to note that Missoula County has not approved the request, but is currently considering it.
Missoula County on Tuesday heard a request from the Open Aid Alliance to shine a purple light onto the county courthouse to recognize National Overdose Awareness Day.
And while it’s just a purple light intended to bring awareness to a national issue, agreeing to the request could open Pandora’s box, the county fears.
“They got a hold of me and asked if they could get a permit for the courthouse lawn and a power outlet, and they’d light up the courthouse on August 31 for overdose awareness,” said Jason Hauser with county planning services.
Hauser said the organization has done such things for nearly two decades and often seeks public landmarks to raise awareness. In Missoula, at least, the County Courthouse is a visible location.
According to the request from the Open Aid Alliance, International Overdose Awareness Day aims to remember “the loved ones we have lost and acknowledge the grief of family and friends left behind.”
“This year, the cause is more important than ever, because Covid-19 is leading to increased drug-related harms around the world,” the Alliance wrote. “Despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, we simply cannot ignore the other health crisis staring us in the face.”
While the request appears innocuous and represents a good cause, it could open the door to more controversial requests, including the recognition of certain holidays or making other public statements, the county fears.
Brian West, a deputy Missoula County attorney, said one such discussion recently came up around Christmas. He cautioned commissioners to consider wisely since no policy currently exists that guide the use of the courthouse exterior for public statements.
“It’s up to you to decide if you want to open this up to other people wanting to do the same sort of publicity using the courthouse building,” he said. “It’s up to you on how you want to use the public property.”
In the past, West said, the county has opened the courthouse Rotunda for public displays to several interested parties. Recognizing Overdose Awareness Month would be the first time a request was granted for outside the courthouse in recent memory.
“We ultimately were going to discuss enacting some sort of policy that would govern the use for outside entities that want to come in and do this,” West said. “I don’t believe the policy was ever formalized or adopted.”
Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to give the request further consideration and to sit down a write a policy governing future requests.
“Let’s just do this because this is a positive thing. No one wants anyone out there overdosing,” suggested Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “But before we get other asks, we should get together and create a policy.”
Commissioner Juanita Vero also sought further affirmation.
“Let’s just make sure we’re not stepping in anything inadvertently here,” she said.