Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley said he expects a standing-room-only crowd at the next council meeting and he’s pretty sure many in the audience will be armed.
Dudley has scheduled the council at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, to again consider repealing a city ordinance that bans guns from city parks and the marina. The council voted 5-1 on Jan. 2 not to amend the code, but to wait until after state and federal lawmakers make changes in gun laws.
Then Councilman Rick Almberg triggered a much larger controversy over gun control at the Jan. 15 meeting by leaving in protest after a verbal confrontation with a member of the audience who admitted he was carrying a concealed weapon. Almberg made a motion that anyone with a gun in the council chambers will be asked to surrender the weapon to the police chief or leave; when it didn’t pass, he walked out.
Dudley harshly criticized Almberg and another council member at the end of the meeting for trampling citizens’ Second Amendment rights. He also apologized to the public for the councilmen’s actions.
Since then, a Youtube video of the walk-out and Dudley’s chastising speech has gone viral. Dudley said he’s been interviewed by three TV stations and two talk-radio hosts. Several pro-gun websites have picked up on the issue and are urging members to attend the next council meeting. News organizations as far away as the Los Angeles Times have written about the controversy.
“It’s more than just a local issue. I think it’s bigger than that. It’s complex,” said Councilman Jim Campbell, the only councilman to oppose Almberg’s motion.
“I just hope we can all have a reasonable conversation about it,” he added.
Dudley initially scheduled the meeting at the fire station, which can accommodate many more people, but then the majority of council members complained about the change in venue. He looked into the issue and found that he doesn’t have the authority to relocate regular council meetings, so he moved it back to City Hall.
“Most likely we’ll be turning citizens away,” he said. “If the council doesn’t want to accommodate citizens, that’s their choice.”
Dudley said all the chairs in the audience may be removed to make room for more people. The fire chief will stand at the door to count attendees. The mayor said he sent out an email to council members, warning them about the overcrowding and asking how they would like to proceed.
Councilman Joel Servatius, on the other hand, said if the mayor is sincere about wanting to accommodate everyone wishing to attend, he would seriously look at finding a gun-free zone. For example, past council meetings have been held at schools, where people aren’t allowed to carry guns.
Servatius pointed out that many residents said they were afraid to go to the meeting if people are packing heat.
“Holding our meeting in a venue in which guns (open carry or concealed) are allowed absolutely precludes some citizens from participating in open government because they are intimidated,” he said. “I have forwarded several emails to the mayor from citizens who are intimidated so I know this is a known issue.”
Some council members may not be pleased that the mayor put the gun issue back on the agenda. Dudley said it was his prerogative as mayor to amend the agenda as he sees fit.
“We need to get our ordinances corrected,” he said.
The problem with the ordinances came to light last October when the Second Amendment Foundation sent a letter to the city, demanding that officials repeal sections of city code that prohibit firearms from parks and the marina. The code contradicts state law and a recent state Supreme Court decision.
The proposed code change, however, was brought to the council not long after the horrific school shooting in Connecticut.
The council, led by Almberg, voted not to amend the code immediately since changes may be coming to gun laws. The council members made it clear that they are not against guns, but feel some commonsense rules are in order.
The Second Amendment Foundation sent a second letter to the city, dated Jan. 24, threatening legal action if the elected officials continue “thumbing their noses at the rule of law.”
“I can assure you that we already have individual plaintiffs lined up and will file suit against the city of Oak Harbor and members of the city council if the city continues to flaunt the state statute,” Alan Gottlieb, vice president of the organization, wrote.
In a letter to the News-Times, Almberg pointed out that state law bans guns from certain areas, such as schools and courts, without running afoul of the Second Amendment. He said he feels places like city parks and council chambers should be included in the list, though he acknowledges they currently aren’t.
In an interview this week, Almberg admitted the city code will eventually have to be brought in line with state law; he realizes that the police can’t be asked to enforce an unenforceable law.
“That doesn’t mean I condone guns in council meetings or in parks,” he said.