Is this the Wild West or the San Fernando Valley? One local business news story in the last few weeks may make you wonder.
That’s because the city of Burbank is having a “High Noon” style standoff with the appropriately named Tinhorn Flats Saloon and Grill.
Here’s the nutshell version:
The owner of the bar and grill said he went along with the pandemic-related lockdown orders but became infuriated with the one that came down late last year instructing restaurants to close their outdoor dining again. After a couple of days, he opened his outdoor dining, flouting the order. A showdown was put in motion.
The city took action to try to force him to close, including revoking his conditional use permit – basically his right to operate a business. He continued operating anyway. The city escalated the faceoff, getting a judge to order his electricity to be shut off. But within hours, Tinhorn Flats was operating again, using donated generators. Then the city went back to the judge who this time authorized padlocking the restaurant’s doors. But the owner’s son sawed off a lock on a side door, and patrons streamed in through that door. That was St. Patrick’s Day, and the son, Lucas Lepejian, said the restaurant enjoyed its busiest day ever.
The city’s fire and police officials inspected Tinhorn Flats that evening and removed the locks from the front door, saying it was a fire hazard to have patrons inside while the front door was padlocked. They called the actions of Tinhorn’s owner “irresponsible” and “reckless.”
So, the showdown had escalated, with the city saying the owner has obstinately and flagrantly violated official orders to curtail his business activities in the face of the pandemic. The owner, Baret Lepejian, pointed out that there is no evidence that outdoor dining poses much risk at all, which means the city was trying, unjustly, to take away his livelihood.
Baret Lepejian last week said the city’s fines – which accrue daily – amount to nearly $50,000, but he has no intention of paying. And he will not close. “I’m going to stand tough.”
Isn’t this straight out of the Wild West? You can almost see the two combatants standing in front of the Tinhorn Flats saloon on dusty Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank, neither able to back down, squinting at each other under the brims of their cowboy hats, ready to draw.
But let’s stop. Think this over. Like many confrontations, this one may not end well. For anyone.
Lepejian could be ruined by this. He’s facing huge fines that overwhelm the tens of thousands donated on his GoFundMe page. And I don’t suppose the fees of his lawyer, Mark Geragos, are cheap. What’s more, he allowed that the psychological toll, especially on his daughter, is trying, given all the hate messages he has received, some of which he described as truly nasty.  
And Burbank is not covering itself in glory. By single mindedly escalating this confrontation so relentlessly, it’s losing the moral authority it may have held at the beginning. Lepejian has asserted that Burbank’s motivation now seems to be anger and pure revenge. And that may start to ring true for more people the longer this goes on.
Here’s a suggestion. The Burbank City Council could take a page from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, which earlier this month voted to drop the remaining lawsuits it had filed against 13 businesses that remained open despite lockdown orders. “The lawsuits were never meant to be punitive but rather to gain compliance with public health orders,” said the supervisors’ chair, Linda Parks, who went on to say that “this act of goodwill is in concert with the loosening of indoor restrictions.”
That’s refreshing. If Burbank’s city leaders could find within themselves the ability to parrot such words and acts, it would go a long way toward relaxing this tense standoff. And if Lepejian would pay a token fine and issue a statement that he understands the city’s original intention was to protect public health, well, maybe everyone could walk into that saloon and enjoy a celebratory drink.