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Petaluma poised to extinguish fireworks

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As the one-year anniversary of the North Bay Fires approaches, the Petaluma City Council rekindled the public safety discussion on banning state-approved fireworks this week, and weighed its options for how to effectively phase them out over the next few years.

Even though the council members were generally supportive of a ban – separated by differences in how best to enact it – they ultimately acknowledged their lame duck status with as many as three seats being changed in the November election, and opted to forgo any sort of resolution that would have to be readdressed by the next council.

Instead, they let Monday night’s conversation set the framework for the next council’s goal-setting sessions in January, despite the calls from council members Teresa Barrett and Dave King to adopt the ban right away.

“I just think kicking the can down the road to some future council is really not showing leadership,” Barrett said. “I think that’s what we need to do now before we have another fire season that coincides with our fireworks.”

The Petaluma Fire Department has been consistently opposed to firework sales and use, citing fire safety and the masking capabilities of legal or “safe and sane” fireworks that often compromise enforcement. City officials also pointed to the demands on staff time and the overtime hours that are required to canvass neighborhoods for illegal use.

According to the fire department’s after-action report for 2018, which is submitted to officials each year, the PFD received 155 calls for service – down from a 10-year high of 174 in 2017. Two written warnings were given, although verbal warnings are not tracked, the report said.

The department responded to four Fourth of July fires this year, one less than July 4, 2017. Over a 10-year span, the firefighters were called out to 64 such fires, causing approximately $475,000 in damages – although a structure fire in 2015 was responsible for $424,000 of that amount, city officials said.

Dennis Revell, a spokesperson for firework distributor TNT, provided the council with alternatives that would bolster enforcement capabilities like a social host ordinance and using a drone to track illegal use.

Councilman Chris Albertson, Petaluma’s former fire chief, said he was intrigued by the idea of a social ordinance, which would make it illegal to host an event where fireworks are used. But he also warned of a future referendum on the council’s decision, one that would prove costly for the city and result in a contentious public campaign before a final vote at the ballot.

To avoid that fate, one Santa Rosa had to endure even though the ban was later upheld by voters, Albertson suggested putting it on the ballot for Petaluma’s constituents to ultimately decide in 2020.

While the council was receptive to the idea, getting it on the next general election ballot would require a continuation or further action from a future body, once again eliminating the need to act Monday night.

“Let’s not have this argument coming back every year,” Albertson said. “This is a discussion about whether or not we’re going to have a future discussion. … So let’s have something on the ballot that would let the public and this community speak out.”

The dialogue at City Hall was met with resistance from representatives of several local nonprofits, which heavily rely on Fourth of July sales of “safe and sane” fireworks for their annual fundraising. Brad Kaplan with the Pyro Division of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps said the local chapter generates about one-third of its $20,000 annual budget during the five days firework sales are permitted in Petaluma.

“What you do here will have a lasting impact on our organization and other nonprofits,” he said to the council. “Do not eliminate safe and sane fireworks because of a problem that we have with illegal fireworks.”

However, Councilman Gabe Kearney questioned the profitability of fundraising with fireworks. According to figures submitted by each of the 13 permitted nonprofits, each group is taking home approximately 26 percent of its gross sales.

“It’s shocking to me how little money these nonprofits get from how much volume they sell,” he said.

The city council has discussed and amended regulations regarding the use and sale of state-sanctioned pyrotechnics several times since 2003. Over the years, most of the policy changes regarded the types of fireworks that should be available, the number of days they can be sold, and which vendors should be permitted.

All fireworks are illegal in fire-prone areas and are prohibited in the unincorporated areas around Petaluma. Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Cloverdale are the other three cities in the county that allow state-sanctioned fireworks. The current penalty for illegal possession is confiscation and a $1,000 fine.

The police and fire departments conduct a broad preventative campaign in the weeks and months leading up to July 4. Local movie theaters aired PSAs and electronic billboards are displayed in various parts of the city. Petaluma Police also issued numerous Nixle alerts outlining the penalties for illegal use and the hours “safe and sane” fireworks can be used.

For now, a policy decision will be left for another time, putting the onus on the next council and reducing Monday’s discussion to little more than a lengthy debate on the dais.

“So much ado about nothing,” Mayor David Glass said.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)