By Zach Hagadone
Perhaps it’s fitting that a holiday commemorating the commencement of a world-historical conflict should generate controversy. So it has been with Sandpoint’s traditional Fourth of July celebration — canceled by its longtime sponsors, the Lions Club, in 2020 in an abundance of caution over COVID-19 exposure and picked up by an independent group, Sandpoint Independence Day.
The nonprofit SID organization, helmed by local conservative activists Steve Wasylko and Ron Korn, purported to “save” Independence Day in 2020, making claims that the Lions Club — which had put on the parade and fireworks show for nearly 70 years — had “pass[ed] the baton.”
In that spirit, SID again applied for a permit to put on the parade in 2021, which the city denied. SID organizers then appealed the denial, arguing their case before City Council at its May 5 regular meeting.
“They [the Lions] wanted to give this up,” Wasylko told the council, with Korn adding: “We were told by Janice [Rader, current vice president] that the Lions Club was no longer interested in hosting the event.”
Wasylko played an edited selection of recorded phone calls with Rader from 2020, in which Rader said, “I’m trying to lead them away from it [sponsorship of the Fourth of July celebration] — just say, ‘Let them [SID] run with it and see how it goes.’ But apparently there are other political forces at work in town. I’m hoping that the rest of the Lions Club members just say, ‘OK, you guys have this under control and let’s walk away.’ And I would be so pleased if they did.”
Wasylko said: “The vice president was telling us this,” referring to Rader, who in 2020 was the Lions Club’s events coordinator.
That didn’t sit well with current Lions Club President Rhonda Whittaker, who testified at the meeting: “It’s a little frustrating to hear what I heard today,” referring to the claims of Korn and Wasylko. “I was put in this position because of the miscommunication and everything that went on.”
As the Reader reported in June 2020, the Lions Club had every intention of returning to its role as hosts of the Fourth of July festivities in 2021.
“We look forward to celebrating the Fourth of July with our community next year,” the service organization stated in a news release last year.
Then-club President Howard Shay added: “As for the future, [Korn] made overtures about next year and ‘passing the baton’ or something, but he’s not contacted me or our board or written me any emails. I’ve told most of our Lions and I’ve emailed them and nobody’s saying that they ever told him that, so I don’t know where he’s getting it. We never said we weren’t going to pick it back up.”
In a personal statement emailed to City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton on May 10 and shared by Rader with the Reader, the latter expressed her “shock and hurt by the invasion of my privacy upon hearing my voice from a private conversation being played at a public meeting.
“While these recordings are legal in the state of Idaho, I strongly believe they are unethical.
“Steve Wayslko knew fully well that I was speaking from my personal opinion and was [in] no way representing the Sandpoint Lions Club at the time of our conversations. If he had played the entire conversations, the city council would have heard me stating that I was not representing the Lions Club, the conversations were my personal opinions and that I fully support the Lions Club.
“The Sandpoint Lions Club has always had the Sandpoint Community’s best interest at heart and has proven this throughout the years,” she added. “We are thankful to have the opportunity to put on a fabulous 4th of July celebration this year and look forward to this event for another 68 years!”
Stapleton, in an email to the Reader on May 11, wrote:
“I would just reiterate that it was unfortunate that the city was put in the position of having to choose between two applicants so committed to putting on a Fourth of July community celebration. This has never happened before. It was sincerely our hope that the two organizations would be able to figure out a mutual path forward.”
Stapleton added that the city granted the Lions Club the permit to host the parade based on its Special Events Policy, which she said, “gives preference to traditional events and their organizers.”
SID organizers pushed back against that interpretation of City Code at the May 5 meeting, pointing out that the events policy gives no stated preference for “traditional” or “historic” event hosts. Indeed, Chapter 6 of City Code, which covers special events, does not include any such specific verbiage.
Council President Shannon Sherman, who in a 4-2 vote (with Council members Joel Aispuro and John Darling dissenting) upheld the city’s denial of SID’s application, recognized there is a lack of clarity in the policy.
“I think there needs to be a hard look [at those policies]. It’s really unfortunate that we’re put in this position,” she said at the May 5 meeting, adding that it would be “very disheartening that this decision … would remove either of the parties from this year’s celebration.”
That’s what has happened, according to a May 11 post to the Sandpoint Independence Day Facebook group, which has about 1,800 members.
On the page, Korn wrote, “We have agreed to terminate our permit applications for this year’s Independence Day Fireworks and festival at the park. We cannot work with such a hostile city government. They have made it very clear that they will not follow their own city policy when it comes to our organization. … We are looking into doing other patriotic events in the future, but won’t be asking permission. … Remember, government doesn’t own anything. It’s public property.”
Attached to the post, Korn included a copy of a letter addressed to Stapleton, stating in part: “We find it unethical and immoral to do business with a corrupt government entity whose elected officials and employees refuse to abide by the policies as written while using the same policies to defer, obfuscate and delay certain volunteer groups who do not align with the administration’s personal politics.”
In the letter, SID applauded Aispuro and Darling “for standing up and doing the right thing.”
“Independence Day should never have been made a political issue, but the city found a way to make that happen. We feel our personal politics were a factor in the city’s decision and that is unacceptable for what is supposed to be a non-partisan government entity. The events we provided last year were entirely non-political and had we been issued the permit this year, as we should have been, the city would again have been provided with an incredible, non-political celebration of our nation’s independence.”
Despite SID’s claims, the 2020 Fourth of July parade was indeed tinged with partisan politics — specifically conservative politics. The lead parade entry was a 1950s-era military truck bearing both a Gadsden and “Blue Lives Matter” flag — both well-known conservative activist symbols. The majority of the rest of the parade consisted of classic cars, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Bonner County Republican Central Committee (bearing Trump-Pence campaign material), several area churches, a handful of pest control companies, Shingle Mill Blueberry Farm and the Dixie Dandies band.
SID assured in 2020 that, in Wasylko’s words, “There’s no political undertones to this whatsoever. Whoever wants to be in the parade can be in the parade — the commie-socialists of Sandpoint are certainly welcome to have a float in our parade. … I’ll even take a turn and all the liberals in town can try and dunk me [in the dunk tank the group has rented for Travers Parks].”
Asked for comment on the May 5 decision to uphold the denial of SID’s parade permit, Wasylko responded via text: “I can’t believe you have the nerve to contact me after what happened last summer. Why answer questions when you’ll spin it how you like. I thought I was pretty clear in my last email. Maybe you need to read it again. Lose my number.”
The “last email” to which Wasylko referred came to the Reader in June 2020 after a lengthy back-and-forth exchange in which the former alleged the paper had misquoted and mischaracterized his and SID’s statements, including the publication of off-the-record comments.
When pressed to provide specific examples, Wasylko was unable to do so. When provided with a full recording of conversations regarding the events — including timestamped portions pertaining to specific quotations — Wasylko again refused to identify any errors or omissions of fact, writing in a June 10, 2020 email:
“You know what you did. Your article was a shitty, divisive hit piece. The community knows it, I know it and you know it. I’ve heard from countless people, including Lions board members, who expressed their disgust at you politicizing a community event.
“Both of you assholes [Reader Publisher Ben Olson and Editor-in-Chief Zach Hagadone] with zero ethics can go fuck yourselves,” he added. “Ben can stuff his blue shorts and boat shoes and you [Hagadone] can stuff your tweed ‘journalist’ jacket up your asses as far [as] you can reach.
“You can quote me on that if you’d like.”
Stapleton wrote that the city appreciated “the well organized and successful event put on by Sandpoint Independence Day last year when the Lions Club chose to cancel the event for the first time in 69 years due to the COVID pandemic and out of concern for the health and safety of the community.”
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