Sandpoint granted $70k for Festival suit costs and fees

By Lyndsie Kiebert and Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

The city of Sandpoint has once again come out victorious in a lawsuit against Bonner County regarding The Festival at Sandpoint’s gun policy, as Kootenai County District Court Judge Lansing L. Haynes ruled Dec. 9 in favor of the city’s motion for costs and fees accrued while defending itself in the case.

Haynes granted the city’s request “in part” — though attorneys with Lake City Law motioned for almost $95,000, the judge ruled that the city should be awarded $70,000.

“This Court does not challenge the time spent by the City’s attorneys and staff; that time produced high quality work and a favorable outcome for the City,” Haynes wrote in his ruling. “This Court concludes that possibly fewer hours could have achieved the same result.”

Haynes ruled Sept. 2 that Bonner County lacked the standing necessary to bring the lawsuit — which centered on the constitutionality of The Festival at Sandpoint’s policy to ban guns from publically-owned War Memorial Field during its annual concert series — to court. The city has long maintained that it is not regulating weapons at the event, but rather that the lease with The Festival puts any rule-making burden — and authority — on the lessee.

Idaho firearms preemption law is not clear about the legal ins and outs of regulating guns on public property when a municipality leases property to a private party. While the county commissioners and Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler — plaintiffs in the case — argue that existing regulations at The Festival are violating rights, Haynes declined to rule, stating that “a declaratory judgment can only be rendered in a case where an actual or justiciable controversy exists.” The county, Haynes ruled, presented “unpersuasive” legal arguments about the possibility of a protest-turned-riot outside future concerts should the court not reach a judgment on the gun issue.

“At least there’s something good in 2020,” Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton told the Reader, nodding to an otherwise challenging year, which has been dominated by political rancor on a number of topics, including the county vs. city suit, pitting gun rights activists — and their elected county supporters — against both the city government and, by extension, The Festival itself. Add to that the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of the early summer, along with their armed self-described “protectors,” and vigorous debate over the community’s COVID-19 response, and the past calendar year has been a structural challenge for institutional and social stability both in Sandpoint and the nation at large. 

The county vs. city suit has dominated local conversation since August 2019, with the city repeatedly arguing county officials had no standing to bring the action. Judge Haynes agreed earlier this fall, dismissing the claims by commissioners and Wheeler as “speculative.” 

Likewise, the judge ruled that the county’s “argument that the City is not the prevailing party is without merit in fact or law. Contrary to Plaintiff’s [the county’s] assertion that all the Sheriff wanted was clarification of his duties, and the Court’s decision on summary judgment provided that, the reality of the situation is that plaintiff sought a declaration that the City was violating the statutory and constitutional rights of the citizenry, and sought an injunction against the City for doing so.”

Haynes wrote that the county “achieved none of its objectives because the Court determined that this lawsuit should not have been brought by the plaintiff who had no standing to do so.”

Legal counsel for Bonner County did not provide comment on the ruling before press time.

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