Over the last year, Rohnert Park has had division in the community over issues large and small. These included protests over the killing of George Floyd, various pandemic health orders such as closing of businesses and schools, and between parents and teachers about the reopening of those schools. The latest log on the fire, is the potential ban on the sale of Safe and Sane fireworks in Rohnert Park.
This is not a new issue for the city. It has been brought before the council before. Former Vice Mayor Jake McKenzie has consistently fought to have them banned; but he was in the minority. In 2019 and 2020, the Department of Public Safety made presentations on this issue. They did so again this year. Last year, because of the pandemic and because more of the surrounding communities banned fireworks, the city changed the Municipal Code to beef up fines and close commercial parking lots. They also put additional restrictions on the permits the non-profits had to obtain to sell these fireworks.
However, last November three new council members were elected in what has been described as a change election. Mayor Callinan and McKenzie were both defeated in the first ever by-district elections. Current Mayor Gerard Giudice, Vice Mayor Jackie Elward, and Councilmember Willy Linares started their terms. The council set priorities to address this year to include climate change, homelessness, and oversight of the Public Safety Department. They pledged to be open and transparent, to represent the entire community, to strive for unity and equal opportunity. Yet, the controversy around fireworks has become an early test for their leadership. Even their own supporters are divided over it.
Elward asked for a discussion about fireworks. Giudice supported her request. At the last council meeting, on a 3-2 vote with Councilmembers Susan Adams and Pam Stafford in the minority, the council directed staff to move forward with a change to the Municipal Ordinance for a Fireworks Ban. They also directed staff to investigate options for the city to hold some type of Fireworks Display or 4th of July Festival. Further, they wanted recommendations to be presented to fiscally support the multiple community non-profits that relied on the sale of fireworks as their primary fundraising effort each year. Since then, all hell has broken loose on social media and in the community. Therefore, instead of voting on a ban at this week’s council meeting, they again placed the item on the agenda for further discussion and direction to city staff.
One example of the divide was the protest held by citizens of Rohnert Park on Saturday, March 20. About five dozen residents gathered near the Public Library, along Rohnert Park Expressway. Collecting petition signatures and waving signs as passing motorists honked in support, these mothers and fathers, sons and daughters peacefully exercised their voices in protest over the potential fireworks ban. Nichole Niklewicz was the organizer of this event. She is also the creator of the Facebook group “Save Rohnert Park Fireworks.” It has 680 members and is growing daily. Asked what she hoped to gain by today’s protest, she said we “hope to gain the city’s attention, sway them with this input from the community” and to let them know the community wants to keep our fireworks.
Councilmember Adams was in attendance. She recognized that there were “strong feelings on both sides” of this issue. But she is against any ban. After a most difficult year, she said “we ought to have fun this Fourth of July.” She also wants to make it “unacceptable to discharge illegal fireworks” which in her view is the real problem. Finally, she stated that “my preference is for placing the issue of a ban on the ballot” and letting the community decide. A member of the Public Safety Department who was also present supported that view. They said they “would support a ballot measure,” saying “I believe it’s paramount that it goes to a vote.” A resident and city employee, their view was “we want everyone to have a good time.”
The protestors came from all over the city. Amanda Hodson, a Rohnert Park resident since 1989 lives in H Section. She talked about how the funds raised not only supports the non-profits, but its money spent right here in the city. Judy Mefferd said the “Impact is Huge.” A coach of soccer and softball, her family lives in F Section. She said the money raised by the sale of fireworks is used to offset uniform and travel costs. That it lessens the burden for families who might otherwise be unable to support their children playing sports. It allows inclusion of all kids regardless of financial ability. Tiare Guerrero, age 16, who lives in B Section, said she “wants to fight for what I believe in.” A high school varsity softball player and the Junior Class President at Rancho Cotate High School, Guerrero talked about how much was lost this last year. That July 4th would be the first holiday that families and neighbors could celebrate together. She said the city “wants to take that away from us.” Scott, a D section resident who graduated from Rancho Cotate and who has his kids in our schools, didn’t focus as much on the fund-raising aspect. He loves fireworks. He said, “I want for our community to continue our traditions.”
The timing and divisiveness of this issue seems inopportune. Not all change is good. If change is required, the process should be thoughtful and well communicated. That’s the issue the council will need to wrestle with in the next few weeks.