County music festival committee to form ‘backup plan’ in case of Festival closure

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

Bonner County commissioners passed a resolution Oct. 15 to form the Music Festival Feasibility Study Committee — a group meant to conduct a study to “determine whether it would be in the public interest for Bonner County to sponsor a summer music festival that complies with Idaho law, including Idaho laws protecting the rights of its citizens to bear arms,” should the Festival at Sandpoint cease operations.

Commissioner Dan McDonald.

“Contrary to what some folks believe, we like and enjoy the Festival and see it as a good event for the County,” Commissioner Dan McDonald told the Reader in an email Oct. 11. “With the recent information coming out about the Festival at Sandpoint’s instability, we felt it might be good to explore the County stepping up to help assure the tradition continues.”

Bob Witte, vice president of the Festival Board, told the Reader that the Festival has no plans to fold.

“I can assure you that we have every intention of continuing the Festival this year and into the future,” Witte said. “We have been meeting as a board and in committees tirelessly since the conclusion of last season to work through all of the challenges that we are being faced with at this time.”

The resolution forming the committee cites former Festival Director Dyno Wahl’s Aug. 11 drunken driving arrest, the recent mass resignation of Festival staff and comments from Festival Board members in the Bonner County Daily Bee about the Festival’s financial struggles as reasons for concern that the annual event might not happen in 2020.

The commissioners did not cite the county’s ongoing lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint, in which Davillier Law Group is representing the county as it argues that the city is violating state law by allowing the Festival to ban guns from publicly-owned War Memorial Field during the event.

While the city maintains that it is within the law to allow a private lessee such as the Festival to determine its own weapons policy — even on public property — the Festival Board said allowing guns into the concert series would jeopardize its ability to book musical acts.

“The Festival at Sandpoint believes in the 2nd Amendment,” according to a statement Oct. 3 from the board. “However the artists we work with demand a venue free of guns and knives. We work hard with law enforcement to ensure the safety of the audience. If firearms are allowed, the Festival could not exist.”

Serving on the committee will be McDonald, Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson, and county residents John Maio, Glen Mercurio and Tina Johnson. When asked by an audience member Oct. 16 about the committee members’ “roles in the community and how long they’ve been here,” McDonald said, “that’s irrelevant.”

George Wentz, of Davillier Law Group, will serve as pro bono legal counsel for the committee. McDonald said Wentz is not licensed to practice law in Idaho, but that he can “still interpret the law for us and advise us.”

McDonald told the Reader that the committee would explore options for hosting a festival that would have “zero effect on tax dollars.” In the resolution approved Oct. 15, the committee is allowed up to $5,000 from the county Parks and Recreation fund in order to do things like hold hearings, consult with experts and travel. McDonald told the Reader that the money was put in the resolution as a “placeholder,” and that there will be “no travel or expenses associated with the exploratory committee.”

“In retrospect, I probably should have just taken that $5,000 out,” McDonald told the Reader. “As we discussed, we are firm on this not using any taxpayer dollars. If need be, we will find a benefactor should there be the remote chance that some minor expenses should occur.”

Regardless, the issue of taxpayer dollars related to the Festival gun ban has been a subject of widespread public concern and discussion. Specifically with regard to the county’s lawsuit against the city over the Festival’s weapons policy, many members of the public have raised concerns that the suit will cost taxpayers on both ends. 

Amid questions about the cost of county legal counsel in the case, McDonald posted on Facebook in early September that Davillier was charging $150 per hour. However, the contract for Davillier’s work on the case, obtained via a public records request Oct. 1 and shared with the Reader, stipulates much higher billings than initially indicated by McDonald.

Under the terms of the contract, Wentz will bill at $250 per hour while lawyers D. Colton Boyles and Mauricio Cardona, who McDonald said would be performing most of the work on the case, will each bill at $175 per hour. If Davillier sees fit to employ paralegal assistance, that would bill at $95 per hour, though McDonald told the Reader that the county will rely on in-house paralegal work. 

McDonald said he had been quoting numbers from an unfinalized version of the contract when he put the billable rate at $150 an hour — a number that he emphasized in multiple public postings on Facebook.

Beyond the billable hours, the contract with Davillier stipulates, “The County will be charged for travel, meals and lodging expenses of attorneys for file related trips that the County has pre-approved in writing,” as well as costs associated with experts and consultants, “which services shall not be engaged without the County’s prior written approval.” Those latter costs are to be paid directly to service providers.

Proceeding with the Festival committee, if it’s determined the county could feasibly facilitate it, members would solicit proposals for a new music festival “at War Memorial Field each year during approximately the first two weeks of August.”

“I want to make sure that it is clear that we are not looking to put the Festival out of business, in fact, I would much prefer the Festival work through their issues and get back to business as usual,” McDonald told the Reader. “Our action is a response to those who have read the coverage and comments on the Festival and are concerned about the economic impact of the Festival choosing to close.”

Wentz repeatedly identified the committee’s job as creating a “backup plan” during the Oct. 15 meeting where commissioners McDonald and Steve Bradshaw passed the resolution. Commissioner Jeff Connolly was not present.

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