The Columbus Dispatch

Lebanon defends its concealed carry law

Thousands spent by the city on legal fees

- Quinlan Bentley

The city of Lebanon has spent thousands in taxpayer dollars on legal fees defending an ordinance allowing concealed carry license holders to bring firearms into the city building. But that’s likely just the start.

City officials say the case still has a lengthy path ahead before a final judgement is made.

Lebanon paid the Finney Law Firm, which was hired to represent the city, $25,240 from April 16 to Nov. 12, according to financial records obtained by The Enquirer through a public records request.

Lebanon City Council unanimousl­y approved the ordinance in March 2020, giving license holders permission to carry firearms into the city building, which doubles as the municipal court, during council meetings and other periods.

The city previously had a rule that expressly banned the carrying of weapons or items that resemble weapons into council chambers.

Three Lebanon residents – Carol Donovan, David Iannelli and Brooke Handley – filed a taxpayer lawsuit against the city on March 31, alleging the ordinance conflicts with state law, which prohibits concealed carry in government buildings that contain courtrooms.

The residents are represente­d by Everytown Law, the litigation arm of the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Lebanon-based law firm Gray & Duning.

“The potential presence of concealed handguns introduces a risk of physical harm and armed intimidati­on, particular­ly in a setting where vigorous discussion on hot button issues can cause tempers to flare,” the complaint reads.

The city argues the ordinance doesn’t violate state law as concealed carry is still prohibited when the municipal court is in operation. Attorneys for the city filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but Warren County Common Pleas Judge Timothy Tepe ruled last month that it can proceed.

‘It’s taxpayer money’

City Attorney Mark Yurick says lawsuits like these are unusual for Lebanon, with most legislatio­n passed by council pertaining to city services.

Lebanon caused controvers­y this year when it became the first city in Ohio to ban abortions.

Yurick said the city typically hires outside legal counsel for complex litigation, adding that funds to hire those attorneys comes from a line item in the city’s $100 million budget set aside for outside legal fees.

“I’m a one-person operation,” Yurick told The Enquirer. “... it would be extraordin­arily difficult for me by myself to do complicate­d litigation, as well as carry on my other duties of being a legal

adviser to the city manager, council and all the department heads.”

Yurick, who’s been with the city for more than 20 years, said the money spent on legal fees in this case is “toward the low end of reasonable” but is still a considerab­le amount of tax money.

“This concealed carry lawsuit involves fairly complicate­d issues of statutory interpreta­tion, constituti­onal law and municipal law,” he said. “So, I can’t just go out and take the low bidder and expect to have any kind of chance of prevailing adequately in a suit.”

“I’m very sensitive to the fact that it’s taxpayer money,” Yurick said, though he did anticipate legal action against the ordinance when council voted on the issue last year.

What’s been paid so far is just a fraction

of what’s going to be paid in the long run, Yurick said, as there will likely be an appeal to the trial court’s decision. He said it may take years before there’s a final judgment.

Yurick expects appeals due to the lack of guiding precedent, adding it’ll be “a case of first impression.”

Nathan Ela, a professor of political science and law at the University of Cincinnati who specialize­s in local government, said the possibilit­y of multiple appeals could make this ordinance too expensive to defend.

“And that could become a political issue of: Do we really want to be spending taxpayer money defending this ordinance, which we may end up losing?” he said. “Because sometimes courts are not generous in interpreti­ng what the powers of municipali­ties are when they

conflict with state law.”

Case is ‘not about the Second Amendment’

Despite the fact this case has to do with the ability of citizens to carry firearms in a public space, it’s ultimately not about the Second Amendment, experts say.

“This is a case of local government law at this point,” Ela said, adding the lawsuit focuses on issues of local government power.

The Ohio Constituti­on grants local government­s certain home rule powers, with the consensus generally being that state law take precedence over local ordinances if there’s a conflict between the two. Ela said the case mostly centers around two arguments: Whether the residents can bring a taxpayer lawsuit given their personal anxieties over guns in the council chambers – an argument the court already resolved – and whether there’s a conflict between local and state law.

“And if there is a conflict,” Ela said, “what type of power is Lebanon acting on here? Is this police power? Or is this a core act of local self government?”

According to Ela, if Lebanon can argue the ordinance isn’t a police power but an act of self government, the court may rule in the city’s favor based on home rule powers granted by the state.

Hypothetic­ally, the arguments in this case would be moot if either city council meetings or municipal court were housed in a different building.

“If that’s a decision that Lebanon wants to make, then again, it’s a political question of whether there are so many residents who feel like they can’t participat­e in city council meetings because it’s not a safe place to be,” Ela said.

 ?? PHOTOS BY KAREEM ELGAZZAR/THE ENQUIRER ?? View of Mulberry Plaza May 27 in Lebanon. The city’s concealed carry ordinance is currently being challenged by a taxpayer lawsuit.
PHOTOS BY KAREEM ELGAZZAR/THE ENQUIRER View of Mulberry Plaza May 27 in Lebanon. The city’s concealed carry ordinance is currently being challenged by a taxpayer lawsuit.
 ?? ?? City of Lebanon attorney Mark S. Yurick says he anticipate­d the city’s concealed carry ordinance would be challenged in the courts.
City of Lebanon attorney Mark S. Yurick says he anticipate­d the city’s concealed carry ordinance would be challenged in the courts.

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