County appeals Festival suit to Supreme Court

Sandpoint’s motion for legal fees to see hearing Oct. 27

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

Bonner County is appealing its case against the city of Sandpoint to the Idaho Supreme Court, after a district court judge ruled in early September that the county lacked the standing necessary to bring the case before the court.

The lawsuit, which sought declaratory judgment on the legality of The Festival at Sandpoint’s policy to ban guns at War Memorial Field during the annual concert series, first entered the court system in September 2019. After its conclusion last month, the city filed a motion for nearly $94,000 in costs and legal fees related to defending the case. The county filed an objection to that request, and Kootenai County District Judge Lansing L. Haynes is set to consider the motion during a 1:30 p.m. hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

An unidentified individual carrying a firearm outside the gates at the Festival at Sandpoint in 2019.
Photo by Racheal Baker.

In the “preliminary statement of the issues” listed in the notice of appeal, attorney Amy Clemmons, of Davillier Law Group — representing Bonner County in the case — argued that “the trial court failed to apply the correct summary judgment standard by finding undisputed facts were ‘unpersuasive’ or ‘speculative,’” and that the court “applied an incorrect or incomplete standard for standing by requiring an ‘injury in fact’ and failing to accept the facts in the record of the ‘threatened injury’ and/or anticipated harm.”

The county’s claim that Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler required a judgment on the issue in order to avoid an imminent “affray” outside The Festival gates did not convince Haynes, but legal counsel claims that the court failed to recognize facts that proved risk and the need for a “coordinated law enforcement response.”

According to the appeal, “The trial court found that the court could not ‘assume’ an affray would happen or that the fear of harm had any merit. This finding was contrary to the expert opinions of law enforcement officers, and the City of Sandpoint never submitted any expert response to those opinions.”

Despite the notice of appeal listing Wheeler as a plaintiff, Wheeler wrote in an email Oct. 21 to the Sandpoint Reader that he is “no longer an appellant” in the case.

“The sheriff’s duties are a subject of the appeal, but Bonner County, as the principal, is appealing the matter,” Clemmons told the Reader in an email. “The court granted the sheriff complete discretion to interpret the law as he sees fit, without the court resolving the underlying legal dispute. … However, the fallout of the unresolved conflict creates an inherent risk, the financial implications of which fall upon Bonner County.”

According to Clemmons, the central issue of the lawsuit remains unresolved — that is, whether the city can convey the right to a private entity to regulate firearms on public property. Memorial Field, being a city-owned property, is constitutionally protected from firearms regulation by local government. However, the city has argued that The Festival is empowered by its lease agreement to set its own security protocols.  

“The reason for this law is to allow the state Legislature to provide a uniform and consistent set of gun rights throughout the state without interference by municipalities,” Clemmons wrote. “Allowing the city to vary gun rights through a lease would cause the exact harm the Legislature was intending to prevent. … Regardless of which side of this dispute people fall on, the court is the proper location to resolve the dispute.”

In a statement emailed Oct. 21 to the Reader, Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad said: “We had hoped that the recent decision by Judge Haynes at the District Court level would bring an end to this case and the growing costs to City of Sandpoint and Bonner County taxpayers.”

“It is fiscally irresponsible for Bonner County and Sheriff Wheeler to continue to pursue this case at taxpayer expense, especially given the fact that there is another case pending before the courts, Herndon vs. City of Sandpoint,” Rognstad continued, referring to a case in which two armed citizens who were turned away from the 2019 Festival are joining forces with regional gun lobby groups to challenge The Festival’s policy. 

“That case is brought by a private party that does have standing and it is likely that a court decision will be made in that case before the County’s appeal is even heard by the Supreme Court,” Rognstad wrote. “The City’s insurance carrier is covering legal costs in the Herndon case instead of our taxpayers.”

The Herndon suit is slated for a trial in February 2021.

Rognstad said that the city is looking forward to the Oct. 27 hearing regarding the motion for legal fees.

“We are confident that we will receive an affirmative ruling in this case as there is recent precedence with the West Bonner County School District also being awarded attorney fees in their lawsuit brought by Bonner County where the court also found the County had no standing,” he said.

Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton said Oct. 21 at the regular Sandpoint City Council meeting that “that hearing will go forward regardless of the notice of appeal,” echoing Rognstad’s feeling that “we are expecting a decision on Tuesday related to the court fees.”

According to a records request obtained by the Reader on Sept. 18, Bonner County had spent $145,529.65 on legal fees in the case to date. Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bauer made specific mention of the cost of the case during the commissioners’ regular business meeting on Oct. 20, as he presented a motion to move $300,000 in justice statutory reserve funds to cover legal costs accrued during the 2020 fiscal year.

Bauer said the “two main drivers” for the need to transfer the funds were the suit against the city and ongoing litigation against Idaho Gov. Brad Little regarding the coronavirus-related CARES Act. He said transferring funds to cover professional legal services was a regular “end-of-the-year closeout” action, since “you can’t really estimate what’s going to be litigated and what it’s going to cost.”

In attendance at the meeting, Selle Valley resident Dan Rose, who is also running for the District 1B seat in the Idaho House of Representatives against incumbent Republican Rep. Sage Dixon, questioned how the amount differed from last year. Personnel with the clerk’s office said that the board moved $250,000 in reserve funds to cover legal fees during the 2019 fiscal year.

“Very similar,” said Commissioner Jeff Connolly, who has been openly critical of the board’s tendency toward initiating litigation. “Way too much.”

Commissioners unanimously approved the motion to transfer the funds with a roll-call vote.

Additional reporting by Zach Hagadone.

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