Festival at Sandpoint status conference postponed

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SANDPOINT — A status conference in a civil lawsuit over a firearms ban at the Festival at Sandpoint was postponed Tuesday after Bonner County filed an amended complaint earlier in the day asking the court to determine if the gun ban violates Idaho law.

The hearing in the pending declaratory judgment reset to Feb. 25 at 1:30 p.m.

“My primary concern in bringing this declaratory judgment action is to ensure that everyone involved in the Festival is acting in accordance with the law so that everyone attending can be confident in their safety,” Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler said in a press release posted to the BCSO Facebook page. “This matter is more appropriately resolved in the court system and not on the streets.”

In the amended complaint, Wheeler said he has learned that armed Second Amendment advocates plan to attempt to occupy War Memorial Field during the 2020 Festival at Sandpoint, scheduled for Aug. 6-16.

However, because the city and county disagree on the rule of law that would control any such demonstration, coordination of an effective law enforcement response isn’t possible, he said. The amended complaint asks the court to declare whether the gun ban violates Idaho law so all parties can effectively coordinate to ensure public safety at the 2020 Festival.

“The dispute on the law creates terrible uncertainty for my deputies as well as our fellow law enforcement officials in Sandpoint,” he said. “If law enforcement is not acting under the same interpretation of the law, it is just impossible for us to work together to enforce it. This conflict creates a public safety problem for everyone.”

A decision also is needed because those entities — the city, county, Wheeler and Sandpoint Police could be exposed to civil rights lawsuits for taking action based on a decision to trespass those carrying weapons on public property.

The city and its police department supports and upholds the Second Amendment, Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad said in a statement Tuesday evening. It also does not have a policy banning guns from any city-owned property and has not turned anyone away from carrying guns at its facilities.

“The City leases Memorial Field to the Festival at Sandpoint, a private nonprofit corporation, for its annual concert series,” Rognstad said. “The Festival has always had a gun ban over its (entire) history and in the past two years has implemented additional screening measures as required by the performing artists in their contracts.”

Rognstad said the city is not alone in its practice of leasing government-owned property to private entities and noted that jurisdictions throughout Idaho, including the state itself, lease publicly owned property to private organizations that hold concerts and other events with performers who prohibit weapons in their contract riders and require screening.

“Although we believe we have acted legally, we are working with other jurisdictions and organizations throughout the state and our state legislators to hopefully provide legislative relief in the form of a specific exception for these activities,” Rognstad said. “Such an exception already exists at Idaho college and university functions with more than 1,000 people.”

Such a solution would provide more clarity for everyone and reduce the financial burden of a court case brought by the county and the sheriff, he added.

In the complaint, the county contends that the city cannot transfer the right to temporarily ban guns on public property to the Festival through a lease. City officials contend that the Festival, as a temporary lessee of the facility has the right to draw up its own security policies when it rents the facility each summer for the two-week concert series.

Wheeler said in the complaint that he would be placed in a Catch-22 situation if he were forced to take residents into custody who had been arrested by city officials despite his position that such arrests would be unlawful.

“Instead of waiting for the impending armed protest, standoff and dispute to come to fruition in a crowded public setting,” Wheeler asked the court to resolve the inherent conflict created by the two disparate views.

Wheeler and the county sued the city for injunctive relief to prevent the city from enforcing the firearms ban at Memorial Field during the Festival.

Bonner County filed suit against the city of Sandpoint last fall for allowing organizers of the annual summer concert series to develop security protocols when the Festival rents War Memorial Field, a public facility. Those protocols would include a prohibition on guns at the popular event.

Idaho law forbids the prohibition of firearms in public places, although the city contends the Festival is within its rights to restrict firearms because it leases the facility from the city. The county’s litigation seeks to prevent the Festival from prohibiting firearms.

Commissioners said they brought the suit at the request of constituents who said their safety was jeopardized by the firearms ban during the Festival.

Festival officials announced prior to this year’s run of concerts that they would be prohibiting concertgoers from bringing firearms onto the grounds in order to meet contractual obligations of performing artists.

The city has defended the Festival’s right to draw up security policies when it rents the city facility each summer for the two-week concert series.

In October 2019, the city of Sandpoint called for the lawsuit to be dismissed, saying the county is not entitled to a declaratory judgment or injunctive relief against the city.

At the time, Peter Erbland, the city’s attorney in the matter, said the city has no policies or regulations prohibiting the carrying of weapons on property leased by the annual waterfront concert series.

“Sandpoint also denies that it has granted any such regulatory power to any other entity, including the Festival,” Erbland said in an 11-page answer to the county’s suit.

The Festival’s gun prohibition was tested by two North Idaho residents and members of the Second Amendment Alliance in August. They were advised they could secure their firearms in their vehicles or be issued refunds, court records indicate. City attorney Will Herrington and Sandpoint Police were on hand at the front gate in case issues arose.

“Sandpoint denies any illegality on its part or on the part of Mr. Will Herrington,” Erbland wrote.

Caroline Lobsinger can be reached by email at clobsinger@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @CarolDailyBee.

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