Omodt holds press conference, sheriff and prosecutor call issue ‘political in nature’
By Zach Hagadone
More high drama was on display at the Bonner County administration building over the past week, with the trespassing of two individuals from county commissioners’ business meetings citing “threats,” a press conference on the incidents hosted by BOCC Chair Luke Omodt, and various statements revealing frustration and strain among top local officials.
Omodt told attendees of the Jan. 30 press conference that Sandpoint police trespassed county residents Dave Bowman and Rick Cramer on Jan. 26 after they refused to leave a quarterly budget meeting at the insistence of the chair. The trespass order is in effect for at least the next year, though Bowman and Cramer will be allowed to participate in meetings remotely.
That incident followed an attempt by Omodt to eject Cramer from the Jan. 23 regular BOCC business meeting — a facet of what Omodt referred to as “disruptive and disorderly behavior [that] has interrupted the lawful meetings of Bonner County for months and cannot continue.
“This usurpation of civil society is not the hallmark of good government, but the actions of a mob intended to disrupt our democratic process,” he added.
A pattern of unruly meetings
BOCC meetings have routinely been the scene of angry disruption and outbursts since the current board took office in January 2023 — with repeated accusations and counter accusations leveled by members of the public and commissioners alike related to issues of appropriate public comment and how to apply rules of decorum.
Bowman and Cramer have both been vocal and consistent attendees at BOCC meetings, and have more than once sparred with Omodt in his position as chair. Bowman ran against Omodt for the District 3 commissioner seat in the 2022 GOP primary, during which his candidacy received the endorsement of Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler. Meanwhile, Omodt in the past week announced he would run for re-election to the seat in the upcoming May primary.
According to an email sent Jan. 15 from Bowman to Bonner County Emergency Management Director Bob Howard, and shared with the Reader, Omodt had previously directed Sergeant at Arms Cameron La Combe to remove Bowman from the Jan. 9 commissioners’ meeting after cutting short his public comment.
“I was not being disruptive, certainly had not violated any law and had no intention of leaving,” Bowman wrote in the email, going on to describe the request to remove him as “an unlawful order” and La Combe as having “been put in an untenable position.”
“Unfortunate as that is, it is not my problem, and he has zero authority to remove me or anyone from a public meeting simply because a commissioner is displeased with what is being said,” Bowman wrote. “I would have been well within my rights in that moment to take offensive action to defend myself. Instead I retreated; if it happens again I will not retreat.”
In the Jan. 15 email to Howard, Bowman continued that, “If I feel threatened and defend myself, and an altercation ensues, imagine the ramifications. Civil actions against the county, Omodt and Cameron, criminal charges against Cameron and Omodt, medical bills, potential injuries of bystanders, etc., etc. It could get very ugly. No one needs or wants that, however if it happens it will be on the county and the individual actors, especially now that this has been brought to your attention on the record.”
Bowman concluded the email by asking Howard to “please heed some well-intentioned advice” and keep county employees from “abetting the unlawful action of an elected official.”
A subsequent email from Bowman to Howard dated Jan. 24 — and also obtained by the Reader — reiterated many of those previous points, including that Bowman was “disappointed” to once more see La Combe “attempt to illegally remove a citizen from a public space.”
This time he referred to Cramer, whom Bowman claimed La Combe did not “put hands on,” but “did approach him in a way that could certainly be construed as threatening by any reasonable person.”
Bowman added that Cramer “was open carrying, which as anyone well-versed in weapons and self-defense knows, presents a very real risk in the event of a physical altercation, of escalating to a gunfight. An armed person cannot risk being on the losing end of a fight and having his weapon taken from him, so the weapon itself may very well end up being used to prevent it being taken. … I’ve already warned of the possible ramifications so I won’t repeat them but I will just remind you.”
Bowman concluded the Jan. 24 email by “advising” that the sergeant at arms no longer attend BOCC meetings and went on to “remind” Howard that if a lawsuit were ever brought under U.S. Code 42-1983 — which covers citizens’ rights to sue government officials over civil rights violations — Omodt, Commissioner Steve Bradshaw, La Combe and Howard would “likely be stripped of any qualified immunity protection.”
Finally, Bowman wrote in the Jan. 24 email, “While Omodt will likely again falsely deem this as a threat, I assure you it is not. Consider it an advisement.”
When asked for comment on Jan. 31, Bowman told the Reader that he had been advised not to make any further statements, but indicated that further investigation would “reveal the truth, as well as gross misrepresentation of facts by Omodt.”
Setting the rules
Omodt pointed to language contained in both the Jan. 15 and Jan. 24 emails as constituting enough of a threat to warrant trespassing both Cramer and Bowman — beginning with the attempt to eject Cramer from the Jan. 23 business meeting.
“The safety of our employees, of the public, cannot be denied and it cannot just be washed over,” Omodt said in response to a question at the press conference. “You cannot cry ‘fire’ in a theater and get away with it, and you cannot put in a written correspondence that you will take ‘offensive action’ or threaten to shoot someone for doing their job. There is no way that that is appropriate or will stand in Bonner County.”
Pointing to Idaho law, Omodt said at the press conference that the chair of a board of county commissioners has the authority to preside over meetings and protect free speech, peaceable assembly and rights to redress of grievances contained in the U.S. and Idaho constitutions, as well as Bonner County Code. At the same time, he said, the chair can make the determination of what rises to the level of disruptive or otherwise inappropriate behavior.
“These rights extend to all of the people of Bonner County — not just those that are angry, but to those that are peaceful,” Omodt said. “Written and verbal threats of violence have no place in a public meeting, the peaceful assembly of the people or the petitioning of government for a redress of grievances.”
Going on to say that the BOCC has worked to “improve, maintain and restore order at public meetings since February of 2023,” Omodt added, “Unfortunately, there continues to be a determined minority of Bonner County residents whose disruptive behaviors are contrary to maintaining public safety and legitimate political debate. Those attending public meetings are urged to respect the rules of the Bonner County board of commissioners, which has the authority to set the rules and decorum.”
How those rules are — or aren’t — enforced has been an object of some confusion, frustration and contention.
According to a letter sent Jan. 25 by Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon to members of the BOCC and the Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office, SPD officers were called on Jan. 23 to an in-progress commissioners’ meeting where “an individual was out of control” and Omodt and Bradshaw wished them to be removed.
Coon wrote that officers spoke with the subject outside the meeting, but when they returned to the meeting room to further consult with commissioners about the BOCC’s procedures and policies regarding trespassing, found that the public proceedings had resumed.
“The officers felt it was not in the best interest of everyone to interrupt the meeting to clarify their procedures and policies,” Coon wrote. “Because of the actions of the commissioners, I find myself having to draw a line in the sand to keep the city of Sandpoint and its officers out of any potential future litigation.”
Coon continued, stating that disruptive meetings have become “so severe that officials are unable to conduct the public’s business,” while noting that “citizens have an enormous First Amendment interest in directing speech when it comes to public issues and the governing of their cities and counties.”
However, lacking adopted direction on how an individual should be trespassed from BOCC meetings, “it is challenging for us to assist you in restoring civility to your meetings,” Coon wrote.
“This is to notify the Bonner County commissioners that the Sandpoint Police Department will no longer be responding to trespassing complaints at their meetings until they have adopted rules of decorum and a set of procedures and policies on how to remove disruptive individuals from their meetings,” he added.
Despite that Jan. 25 message from Coon, Omodt said during the press conference that after subsequent communication with the chief and Sandpoint Mayor Jeremy Grimm, “I believe that the public order will be maintained.”
Specifically, he promised to bring forward an item on the next BOCC business meeting agenda to consider putting in a place an ordinance similar to the one enacted by the city of Sandpoint in July 2023, which established a clear set of behaviors that could trigger a request to leave or be trespassed from a meeting.
Those behaviors in the Sandpoint ordinance include, but are not limited to: insulting, demeaning, intimidating, or offensive remarks or other communications; harassment or intimidation of any staff member, elected official or member of the public; continually disruptive behavior in spaces where public business is being conducted; and conduct that threatens or provokes a violent reaction.
“I have submitted that for the consideration of our prosecutor’s office,” Omodt said. “I was advised that this ordinance is not in the best interest of Bonner County. I personally think that we have gotten to a point where it is past time.”
Who’s in charge?
Again referring to the language in Bowman’s January emails, Omodt said, “if in your correspondence you threaten to take ‘offensive action’ — as someone who carried a weapon in service to our country for years — that is not OK. We do not take offensive action in a public meeting. Additionally, you do not threaten to shoot, you do not say this is not a threat but an ‘advisement.’ I find that even more concerning. I also find it concerning that this correspondence was shared with both the sheriff and our prosecuting attorney. I believe it may have been shared with Chief Coon.”
Omodt acknowledged there was confusion surrounding who should handle the trespassing incidents — especially the one that occurred Jan. 23 — and how.
“[A]fter Sandpoint Police was called and contact was made, I thought that was enough. I was unaware that there is a multi-step process in asking somebody to leave,” he said. “I spoke with Chief Coon on Thursday, Jan. 25, trying to figure out what was going on. He was frustrated, I was frustrated.”
Omodt recounted the chain of events, saying that the trespassing on Jan. 26 followed those steps, which included Omodt placing Bowman and Cramer under citizen’s arrest and trespassing them. Police once more asked if they were willing to leave peacefully and, upon hearing that they were still not willing to do so, arrested them for failure to comply.
In a statement dated Jan. 26, Sandpoint Mayor Grimm underscored the authority of Sandpoint police to arrest “anyone suspected of violating the law, day or night, within our municipal corporate territory.” What’s more, under Idaho Code, the police are “obliged and empowered to make arrests, including the facilitation of Private Arrest.”
“The actions of the Sandpoint police were in accordance with these provisions of Idaho Code,” Grimm stated. “The city of Sandpoint has the greatest respect for the Idaho Constitution, the judicial process and the rights of our citizens and elected officials. As this is an active investigation, further commentary will be limited to protect the rights of the individuals involved.”
During the press conference, questions arose regarding why the sheriff’s office hadn’t responded to the recent trespassing incidents — or previous occurrences of alleged disruptive behavior at BOCC meetings.
“This board of county commissioners has reached out repeatedly to the Bonner County Sheriff’s Department for assistance. We have also reached out to the Bonner County Prosecutor’s Office in regards to our existing ordinance,” Omodt said, later noting, in reference to the Jan. 23 meeting, “I would also say that there was a Bonner County sheriff’s lieutenant in the room, and he stayed seated.”
Other attendees also asked about the prosecutor’s office’s response to Omodt’s concerns regarding alleged threats, to which he responded, “That is a question that is best left to the prosecutor.”
Asked how the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices responded after Sandpoint police made their contact with Bowman and Cramer, Omodt said, “That is an ongoing investigation. I do not have the information at this time and I would refer those questions to the sheriff’s department and the prosecuting attorney’s office.”
Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler and Prosecutor Louis Marshall issued their own joint statement Jan. 30 following Omodt’s press conference, writing, “We became aware of one email that was sent to the commissioners from a constituent as a copy was sent by Commissioner Omodt and then he subsequently had a press conference where our offices were once again disparaged.”
Referring to the Jan. 26 incident, Wheeler and Marshall wrote that Omodt removed the two men from the meeting after putting them under arrest “in his individual capacity.” However, they added, “To our knowledge there has been no vote to trespass these individuals by the BOCC. There was no deputy present at the administration building when this occurred; however, based on the videotape of the meeting there wasn’t any disruptive behavior displayed by anyone prior to the order to leave.”
Wheeler and Marshall also stated, “There is a distinction between the chairman of the board ordering someone to leave a meeting and trespassing someone from a public building,” and pointed to “important steps to take, which the prosecutor’s office has helped previous boards with.”
“It is surprising at least one of the current board members chooses instead of receiving valuable advice to limit liability to the taxpayers of this county and to protect both the civil rights of constituents and the safety of persons within the administration building to instead continually cast aspersions on the sheriff and prosecutor,” they wrote, adding, “Any alleged crime needs to be investigated by law enforcement and presented to the Prosecutor’s Office to file charges. This has yet to happen.”
Wheeler did not respond to specific questions from the Reader in a Jan. 30 email about whether Bowman and Cramer had been taken into custody, arrested and booked; arrested and released; or charged with any crimes, though he did provide the joint statement.
“County commissioner meetings have been heated during the current session,” Wheeler and Marshall wrote. “However, no crimes have been committed in the presence of any of the deputies who have sat through the meetings. These deputies have decades of experience dealing with agitated people on almost a daily basis. Deputies will react if the situation calls for it and crimes are actually committed. We would encourage decorum in meetings. We would very much appreciate the commissioners to respect each other, communicate and engage in the county’s business. However, blaming the sheriff and prosecutor for their own shortcomings seems political in nature.”
Meanwhile, Omodt suggested that he would be “willing to consider the expenditure of public funds to maintain public safety in this building” — including through a memorandum of understanding with the Sandpoint Police Department, which he also broached in a Jan. 25 email to Coon and Grimm.
“Our actions put two Sandpoint Police Department officers in a no-win situation on Tuesday, January 23, 2024 during the regularly scheduled business meeting with an unruly crowd and conflicting directions from elected officials. I apologize for this failure. I am accountable and this will not happen again,” he wrote.
“Mayor Grimm, I asked Chief Coon to consider a MOU with Bonner County for X amount of SPD hours/week similar to the MOU the city of Sandpoint has with the Bonner County prosecutor. As both a county and city resident, all too often the city of Sandpoint, and its residents, is asked or demanded to provide services and support to the rest of Bonner County without payment. No more,” he added.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that under the terms of the trespass order, Dave Bowman and Rick Cramer will still be allowed to participate in meetings remotely.