The Rohnert Park City Council voted unanimously Tues. evening to restrict the number of days citizens can launch fireworks in the lead up to Independence Day from five down to three.
It wasn’t the only change. The chief problem stopping police from cracking down on bottle rockets is that they can’t figure out who’s responsible. Often times, they’ll see the launching of an illegal firework, but when they arrive on scene it’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact person who lit the fuse.
To that end the city instituted a new rule which shifted the liability for a firework related crime from the launcher to the property owner or renter. Basically, if someone sets off a bottle rocket in their backyard, it’ll be relatively easy for police to follow the trail back to the property from whence it came. After that it’s a simple matter of writing a fine for the name on the lease.
“We have this conversation year after year, but this is the first year that we’ve done something,” Vice Mayor Joseph Callinan said. “If we come back in a year and we find the non-profits have lost most of their money, then we can reverse it.”
Rohnert Park has long served as one of the last free bastions in Sonoma County for the usage of safe and sane fireworks. Only four cities within the county haven’t outright banned them; the others being Petaluma, Cloverdale and Sebastopol. Part of this is thanks to the significant support by the various nonprofit interests within the city, which are the primary merchants of fireworks year after year.
Eighteen nonprofit organizations make the bulk of their yearly funding off the sale of safe and sane fireworks. Among their numbers are the Rohnert Park-Cotati Rotary Club, the Rohnert Park Soccer Club and the Rancho Cotate Booster Club
For these organizations, the Independence Day weekend is their best fundraising opportunity; it’s where they make the vast bulk of their yearly funding. And it’s easy to see why, because with the various cities of Sonoma County banning the sale of fireworks one after another, more and more people are commuting to Rohnert Park to purchase their explosives.
A lot of money is flowing into the nonprofit organizations coffers. From 2012 to 2017, the yearly sales of fireworks within Rohnert Park leapt from $256 thousand to $339 thousand; though in 2018 that number dropped back to $251 thousand, which city speculates was due to a county wide backlash from the Tubbs Fire.
“I think it’s unfair to the people who do it right. We’ve been selling fireworks for years and it’s a major, major fundraiser for our church,” Ron Affonso, member of the Calvary Life Church, said. “I agree they should get the illegals out, but punishing us by limiting the number of days we can sell legal fireworks is going to have any effect on illegal fireworks.”
But everything has a cost.
For the men and women serving at the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, the Fourth of July is their busiest day of the year. It can become downright grueling. The volume of service calls can reach upwards into the hundreds and there’s no good way to differentiate between the explosions of a safe and sane firework and one that is illegal.
They provide cover for each other and enforcement devolves into a never ending game of whack-a-mole. Hence the shifts to the liability law. The city hopes that the changes will provide police with the tools necessary to solve the problem.
“I had a woman run up to me in the park and give me a hug,” Mayor Gina Belforte said. “She has a son who’s got PTSD and every year he has to leave Rohnert Park for a week. It’s not just the illegals, but the legal fireworks too.”
The new firework code will go into effect in time for this year’s Independence Day weekend. Citizens with questions as to the changes should contact city hall at (707)-588-2226.