The RP City Council took up the issue of fireworks for the upcoming July 4th holiday at their regular meeting on May 26. Almost half of the two-hour meeting revolved around this issue. The topic was placed on the agenda for discussion by Council member Gina Belforte, seconded by Vice Mayor Mackenzie at a previous meeting. Their request initiated a chain of events that led to this discussion.
City Manager, Darrin Jenkins, asked Public Safety Chief Tim Mattos to prepare a presentation and make recommendations concerning continued sales of fireworks in Rohnert Park from a Public Safety aspect. He did as he was asked. He provided three options for the council to consider. They were a complete ban, a one-year ban, or continued sales with additional restrictions on the sale and use within city limits.
Staff recommendation was to ban the sale and use of fireworks. The chief outlined factors he considered in making his recommendation. They were the recent history of wildfires, more frequent “Red Flag” days, impacts of PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs and the economic cost and stress on his force trying to ensure fireworks were appropriately used. He also cited the changing landscape in Sonoma County.
Fireworks were previously banned in many cities in the county to include Cotati, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Healdsburg and Windsor. Petaluma, Sebastopol and Cloverdale previously allowed the sale or use, but are either banning them permanently or at least for this year. By his estimate, last year Rohnert Park saw between 10,000 to 12,000 in the city participating in the purchase and use of fireworks. Much of that activity was seen at commercial parking lots such as Walmart, Home Depot and Target shopping centers.
He believes this year it’ll be even worse. People would come from other cities to Rohnert Park as their only outlet for celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks. Last year it took an “all hands-on deck” effort by his department to monitor and police those activities. With the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s not sure his staff could effectively monitor and enforce the requirements on social distancing, use of masks, or essential travel. He said these gatherings would likely be medium to large events in size and not just local families in their backyards or in front of their homes on the street.
The second option was just a ban for this year only. But if the city didn’t want to consider a permanent or one-year ban, his third recommendation was to put in place stricter requirements for the sale and use of fireworks. This included permitting changes for the booths. Organizations running the sales would have to have appropriate signage, monitor social distancing and provide adequate sanitation for their volunteers and customers. He also recommended closing the city’s parks and commercial parking lots to avoid the risk of medium and large public gatherings.
Mayor Callinan then opened the session to public comments. Twenty-one comments were received with 19 asking the city to keep selling fireworks and two supporting a ban. The “Keep the Booths Open” segment of the public stressed the critical role these booths and the sales play in the various non-profit organizations who sponsor and run them. For many, this is their biggest fund-raising event of the year. The estimated $200,000 raised by the 16 non-profits last year went to fund a wide variety of projects. Specifically mentioned were youth sports, school music programs, Expeditionary Learning at Lawrence Jones Middle School, Project Graduation and various ministry’s programs for at risk youth. The two opposing views mirrored some of the concerns raised by Mattos.
Vice Mayor Mackenzie, a long-time proponent of a ban on firework sales, said he would support a one-year ban. Belforte also favored a one-year ban. The mayor was not in favor of a ban. Council members Adams and Stafford favored continuing sales with additional restrictions.
Due to the short lead time, Jenkins advised the council that any changes or bans would have to be as an Urgency Ordinance. Normally a change to the municipal code would go through a series of steps. That could take about 45 days. An urgency ordinance however is quicker, but it requires four council members to pass it. Jenkins didn’t want to waste staff time and money if the support wasn’t going to be there. All five council members said they would support an urgency ordinance that closed commercial parking lots to fireworks and allowed additional restrictions for permitting the booths. For now, fireworks can be sold and used in Rohnert Park.