Thousands spent so far defending Lebanon's concealed carry ordinance; costs expected to rise

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View of Mulberry Plaza, Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Lebanon, Ohio. The city's concealed carry ordinance is currently being challenged by a taxpayer lawsuit that alleges the ordinance conflicts with state law.
View of Mulberry Plaza, Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Lebanon, Ohio. The city's concealed carry ordinance is currently being challenged by a taxpayer lawsuit that alleges the ordinance conflicts with state law.

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

City officials say the case still has a lengthy path ahead before a final 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 financial records obtained by The Enquirer through a public records request.

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Lebanon City Council unanimously approved the ordinance in March 2020, giving license holders permission to carry firearms 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 – filed a taxpayer lawsuit against the city on March 31, alleging the ordinance conflicts with state law, which prohibits concealed carry in government buildings that contain courtrooms.

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The residents are represented by Everytown Law, the litigation arm of the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Lebanon-based law firm 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 flare," 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 filed 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.

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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 difficult 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."

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.

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 final judgment.

Yurick expects appeals due to the lack of guiding precedent, adding it'll be "a case of first 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 conflict 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 firearms 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 conflict 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 conflict between local and state law.

"And if there is a conflict," 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 different 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.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio concealed carry: Thousands spent defending Lebanon's ordinance

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