By Zach Hagadone
The 2021 Sandpoint Fourth of July will occur under the auspices of the Lions Club, as it has done — with one interruption, in 2020 — for 68 years.
That was the decision after a confused, and confusing, set of motions May 5 at the regular meeting of the Sandpoint City Council, which voted 4-2 to grant the Lions Club a permit to put on the 2021 Fourth of July parade.
At issue was a competing permit from Sandpoint Independence Day, Inc., which was formed in 2020 with the mission to “save” the Fourth of July after the Lions decided to forego its traditional events on concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Shortly after that event, SID applied for a permit to repeat its events in 2021. The city, however, denied that permit. On May 5, the council heard an appeal from SID organizers, who said that denial was unfair.
SID took it upon itself to raise the funds and organize the events on July 4, 2020, which included a parade, family event at Travers Park and fireworks show at City Beach.
Based on the apparent success of those events — and apparently erroneously believing the Lions had no interest in continuing long-time leadership of the community’s Fourth of July celebration — SID members Ron Korn, Steve Wasylko and Todd Prather, all well known local conservative activists, presented their appeal to the council, arguing that their permit request had been improperly passed over in favor of the Lions.
City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton said at the meeting that at no time in the city’s history had two parties applied for the same event on the same day.
“We certainly didn’t anticipate that happening this year,” she said.
That said, the city administration — which includes Mayor Shelby Rognstad — decided to defer to the Lions as the traditional hosts of the Fourth of July parade. Permitting for the fireworks and “family festival” are still to be determined.
That didn’t sit well with SID, whose lead organizers argued that the city’s events policy doesn’t specifically allow for effective grandfathering of “traditional” or “historic” event hosts. The council saw different, but not without some testimony in favor of the appellants.
Council members Joel Aispuro, John Darling and Andy Groat all spoke in plauditory tones about SID’s 2020 handling of the Fourth of July events.
“I wouldn’t want the Lions Club to do the fireworks,” said Groat, referring to last year’s display. “You guys did a great job. … I want you to do another great job … You guys are hittin’ home runs.”
However, Groat voted “yes” to affirm the administrative decision, while Aispuro and Darling voted “no.”
To compound the confusion of the meeting, Wasylko and Korn — Prather spoke little if at all during the meeting — revealed a rift within the Lions Club.
Wasylko stated: “They [the Lions] wanted to give this up.”
Korn stated: “We were told by Janice [Rader, current vice president] that the Lions Club was no longer interested in hosting the event.”
Wasylko stated, apparently quoting from Rader, “‘We got a lot of members who are over it.’” He added that he heard that sentiment “at least 10 times.”
“The vice president was telling us this,” he said, referring to Rader, who in 2020 was the Lions Club’s events coordinator.
“We never said we weren’t going to pick it back up,” former Lions President Howard Shay told the Reader in an interview in June 2020.
Current Lions President Rhonda Whittaker also addressed the council, calling her public service organization “small … but we’re mighty.”
She told the body that the 2020 celebration had been canceled out of an abundance of caution amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but at no point had it suggested that it wouldn’t return to hosting the Independence Day events in 2021.
Indeed, she added, “Our first priority is to make the 2021 celebration the best it has ever been.”
Whittaker, as well as Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon and Stapleton, all alluded to an effort made toward collaboration between SID and the Lions, but to no avail.
No loss, there, as Whittaker stated that the Lions do more than put on the Fourth celebrations, raising money through numerous community events benefiting even more community causes — as it has done since 1953.
“I don’t feel that the club wants to be a part of a political agenda or bashing,” she said, going on to add that whatever Rader may have told SID organizers in the past wasn’t necessarily official Lions policy.
“It’s a little frustrating to hear what I heard today,” she said, referring to the purported claims of Korn and Wasylko. “That didn’t happen … I was put in this position because of the miscommunication and everything that went on.”
Asked by City Council member John Darling if she knew of a specific statement by the Lions to SID that they intended to hand over the Fourth of July to the group in perpetuity, she said, “Absolutely not. I never heard those comments. I’m surprised to hear those comments.”
Aispuro doubled down on his support for SID, complimenting the group on its “better event” and having their “stuff together.”
“No offense” to the Lions, he said, but, “last year was a better event in my opinion; getting the citizens involved.”
He continued that he’s “not into” the idea of “traditionally, historically” when it comes to community events.
“I don’t blame SID for feeling pushed around … they tried really hard with the information they got,” he said. “It’s unfortunate …
“It is policitized, whether we like it or not,” he added.
City Council President Shannon Sherman lamented the lack of clarity in city policy regarding events, stating, “I think there needs to be a hard look [at those policies]. It’s really unfortunate that we’re put in this position.”
She added that while it’s “exciting that so many people are excited about the holiday,” it would be “very disheartening that this decision … would remove either of the parties from this year’s celebration.”
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