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City Attorney, City of Branson
As the legal department of one for Branson, Chris Lebeck has seen firsthand the benefits, and the perils, of each Missouri city crafting its own response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a town of approximately 11,500 people that can draw as many as 9 million visitors per year, Branson faced unique issues in trying to balance the safety of residents and patrons against the needs of a tourist-dependent economy. Lebeck, who has spent much of his career as a prosecutor, said he approached it the way he would a trial.
“I looked at this like any other big project,” he said. “It’s not just me crafting the legal work. It’s getting the best facts, the best information that’s grounded in science and reality in front of that board [of aldermen].”
With Lebeck’s help, city officials enforced a partial shutdown of businesses in March and April and have now extended a mask mandate indefinitely. Throughout the process, Lebeck said he consulted with everyone from local medical officials to make sure he had good data to city attorneys in nearby Springfield to make sure each city’s measures were similar in scope.
“Our state government has made it very clear that this should be a local decision,” he said. “So the challenges are that we’re asking a board of aldermen — six people and a mayor that are doing this job essentially for free — to make these very, very hard health and safety decisions that affect business and affect the community.”
It’s been a unique and unforeseen challenge for Lebeck, who became the city’s attorney in 2018. Even before the pandemic struck, Lebeck found himself stretching into new areas of the law, handling or overseeing everything from land deals and approval of contracts to litigation.
“There’s a lot of people to keep happy in this job and make sure their needs are met,” he said. “If not, I serve no purpose in this position.”
After earning his law degree from the University of Missouri in 2002, Lebeck served as a public defender and a staff attorney for the juvenile office in Greene County before settling into a series of roles as a prosecutor in Greene, Christian and Taney counties.
Then in 2012, when he and his wife adopted a daughter, he moved to St. Louis to become corporate legal counsel for Karpel Solutions Inc., a software company that, among other applications, provides a case management system for prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys.
In 2016, with the adoption of their son, Lebeck and his wife decided to move the growing family back to southwestern Missouri to be closer to family. Lebeck returned to his previous job as chief assistant prosecuting attorney in Taney County.
“They reactivated my old email address with the county, and I picked up right where I left off prosecuting cases,” he said.
But in short order, Branson’s previous city attorney was elected to be the county prosecutor. Lebeck was asked to apply for the resulting opening, which he wasn’t sure he wanted.
“I walked into the interview telling them I didn’t want the job, and they convinced me otherwise,” he said. “And here I sit. It’s been a rocket ship ever since.”