Sheriff, commissioners clash over ice arena lease

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

Bonner County commissioners approved a lease agreement for the construction of the Sandpoint Ice Arena on a piece of fairgrounds property on Oct. 26. More than two weeks later, on Nov. 4, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler made his opposition to the lease known.

In a press release titled “Misappropriation of Public Property” that was posted to the sheriff’s Facebook page, Wheeler alleged that the four acres included in the ice rink lease “had been set aside by a previous board of commissioners for future law enforcement and judicial expansion.” Wheeler also alleged that his office, as well as other judicial and law enforcement factions of the county, were not consulted prior to the lease agreement.

“This shameless ‘bread and circuses’ act was perpetrated so the people of Bonner County would have a place to go ice skating,” the press release concludes. “If you don’t appreciate this DEFUND THE POLICE action, then call, write or visit your Bonner County Commissioners and demand that they rescind this give away of public property!”

A conceptual drawing of how the Sandpoint Ice Arena will look. Courtesy image.

In a follow-up interview on Nov. 9, Wheeler told the Reader that he remains committed to opposing the ice rink in its proposed location.

“I stand by my post and I am convinced that crucial facts were omitted by my non-inclusion in this process,” he said. “It is time to revisit this matter in an open meeting in order to lay all the facts on the table.”

When the sheriff’s press release first hit local Facebook forums, Commissioner Dan McDonald was quick to dismiss Wheeler’s claims, in one comment saying that the county’s elected officials were “a bit concerned that the sheriff’s post could be a result of some sort of mental breakdown,” going on to call it “fraudulent information.” In a follow-up interview Nov. 8, McDonald told the Reader that “it may have been an inartful statement on my part.” 

“What I should have said was what person in their right mind, and in the sheriff’s capacity, [would] put out a press release making false claims that could be so easily proven wrong?” he said.

While McDonald said Wheeler’s claim that his department was not consulted on the lease is true, the commissioners are not required to discuss county property matters with other, unaffected departments.

“Additionally, in an email thread between our prosecutor, the sheriff, our judges and the commissioners a few days prior to the sheriff posting his press release, our prosecutor explained to all that this was within the commissioners’ authority and that we had no requirement to check in with other electeds,” McDonald said.

McDonald called Wheeler’s claim that the land had been “set aside” for law enforcement and judicial uses “laughable,” seeing as prior boards are not able to take such action.

“After the sheriff’s press release hit the public, our clerk did a deep dive to see if, in fact, there had been a legal vote that would have set aside this land, and none could be found anywhere in the record,” McDonald said. “But again, even if there had been, it would not be binding under Idaho law.”

McDonald called the sheriff’s claim that the lease was an attempt to “defund the police” a “dog whistle.”

“There is no defunding of the sheriff,” McDonald told the Reader. “In fact, when we did the massive budget cuts back in 2017 and 2018, the sheriff’s office saw zero cuts and in fact, we saw their budget increase. Nothing has changed and we clearly have not defunded the police. Once again, the sheriff lowers himself to a place where he makes an inflammatory statement. However, he can’t actually support it.”

The issue arose during public comment at the board’s Nov. 9 business meeting, despite the ice arena appearing nowhere on the meeting’s agenda. Some residents expressed safety concerns about having a family-friendly facility so close to the Bonner County Jail. McDonald replied by stating that near the sheriff’s complex is “probably the safest place in the county,” and pointed out that there are other family facilities — such as a playground, apartments and the fairgrounds — nearby.

The other two commissioners also used the meeting as a chance to sound off about the sheriff’s press release, with Commissioner Jeff Connolly reminding everyone that due to open meeting laws, the commissioners don’t discuss resolutions ahead of meetings.

“It seemed like a win-win until some people brought some other things up,” he said, adding later: “In my opinion, I’m open to having another discussion. By no means does this mean I am willing to give up the ice arena. I’m a full supporter of that. But if there are some things we can do to make it better, I’m open to looking at that.”

Commissioner Steve Bradshaw also expressed support for a future meeting where ice arena stakeholders can “put it all out there” for the public.

“What was put on the [sheriff’s] Facebook post was shocking to me,” Bradshaw continued. “I don’t understand the agenda behind it, or the motive. But it was completely, intentionally misleading and false. By no stretch of the imagination can you make any of this sound like we’re defunding the police.”

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