By Lyndsie Kiebert
There appears to be forward movement in the lawsuit over The Festival at Sandpoint’s weapons ban, as a status conference between legal counsel representing plaintiff Bonner County and the city of Sandpoint, the defendant in the case, is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 26 at 1 p.m. at the Bonner County Courthouse.
Status conferences typically serve as a meeting between attorneys and the judge in order to discuss the status of the case and set a timeline for future proceedings. The Nov. 26 conference is open to the public, but the judge reserves the right to ask attendees to leave if they’re deemed disruptive, according to clerks at the Bonner County Courthouse. The judge in this case is Kootenai County District Court Judge Lansing L. Haynes.
The suit, filed Sept. 18, seeks a declaratory action — that is, a decision without damages attached — determining whether The Festival’s prohibition of weapons, including firearms, at the annual concert series is legal under Idaho Code.
County commissioners and Sheriff Daryl Wheeler argue the gun ban violates state statute, which in part bars municipalities from regulating firearms on public property. City officials argue that by leasing War Memorial Field to The Festival, the private nonprofit organization assumes control of the property and any rules it makes are unrelated to the city.
Of major concern to many citizens is the cost of such a suit to taxpayers. Because the declaratory action doesn’t carry with it any award of damages, the city’s insurance won’t cover the cost of its legal defense, meaning property tax revenue from the general fund will be used to pay for fees incurred related to the case. The Bonner County justice fund — also funded by taxpayer dollars — is paying for the county side of the litigation.
As for what those expenses look like thus far, little information is available.
The city of Sandpoint in late-September hired attorney Peter Erbland, of Coeur d’Alene-based Lake City Law, to represent its case. In a letter of engagement, Erbland offered his services for $200 per hour, plus $100 per hour for the work of his paralegal and $200 per hour should one of his partners provide additional support. The letter stated Erbland would bill on a monthly basis.
On Oct. 16, the council approved another contract with the firm to provide a range of services, including engaging principal partner Andy Doman as city attorney and Erbland as special counsel. According to that contract, Lake City Law would be paid a flat rate of $3,000 per month for up to 20 hours per month. Any services provided beyond that time limit by a partner in the firm would be billed at $200 per hour, followed by $175 per hour for associate attorney time and $100 per hour for paralegal time.
In response to a request from the Reader for an accounting of the expenses incurred so far in the case, the city of Sandpoint said it had no such records.
In seeking how much Bonner County has paid its legal representation, Davillier Law Group, for work on the gun ban suit, a public records request submitted Oct. 18 by the Reader was denied Nov. 1. The request asked for “invoices billed to the county from Davillier Law Group in regards to the Bonner County v. City of Sandpoint suit (case #CV09-19-1388).” Upon inquiring Nov. 4 as to what specific piece of Idaho statute kept reporters from being able to examine the records, County Prosecutor Louis Marshall replied Nov. 12: “The response to your request is $21,173.”
Records obtained by a citizen and then shared with the Reader indicate that the response from Marshall corresponds most closely to a $21,073.50 check sent to Davillier from Bonner County on Aug. 27 — the date commissioners approved a contract securing the firm’s services related to the firearm ban case. Under the terms of that contract, Davillier principal George Wentz would bill $250 per hour for his services, which must be advisory only as he is not licensed to practice law in Idaho. Davillier lawyers D. Colton Boyles and Mauricio Cardona, who were identified as handling most of the work on the case, each bill at $175 per hour.
Records show two more checks issued to Davillier since then: one on Sept. 17 for $53,432 and the other on Oct. 23 for $20,995. Because Davillier works for the county on several cases aside from the gun ban litigation, it is immediately unclear how much of the money sent to the law group since the Aug. 27 contract has gone directly to work on that specific case.
As of Oct. 23, records indicate that Bonner County has paid Davillier Law Group about $233,735 for work on a number of cases during the current calendar year — $95,500 of that since Aug. 27, constituting 40.8% of the year’s running total.
The Reader currently has another records request pending, seeking running totals for open county litigation.
When asked whether the gun ban suit is costing more in comparison to other cases in which Davillier has represented the county, Commissioner Dan McDonald told the Reader, “No, not really.”
Regarding concerns that the county initiated a suit that would rest especially heavy on taxpayers who pay both city and county taxes, McDonald said: “I get that, I really do. It’s just, you can’t walk around the fact that it was a really clear cut case, in our opinion, of a violation of state law. So do you ignore it, because it might cost money to protect it? You just can’t. We take an oath of office and we take that oath seriously. …
“Looking at the comments on Facebook, people say, ‘Can’t you just suspend the law for two weeks while the Festival’s here?’” he continued. “It’s like, what? What if a white supremicist group wants to come in and put on a concert and they said, ‘OK, we want to put this concert on, we want to lease the property and by the way, no minorities can show up, no Jews.’ The thing continues to play out, no matter which way you slice it.”
Additional reporting by Zach Hagadone.
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