Citing the noise generated, impact on pets and those with post-traumatic stress disorder, Santa Maria residents advocated for more strict fireworks laws and tougher punishments for offenders during a community meeting to discuss the state of legal and illegal fireworks in the city.
Held at the Minami Community Center, the meeting — which drew around 35 people — was called to provide the City Council with public input as city officials weigh whether or not to change the local fireworks ordinance.
While Santa Maria’s ordinance allows the use of so-called "safe and sane” fireworks — those that do not explode or fly — on the Fourth of July between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., the city has seen a rise in the use of illegal fireworks in recent years, said Assistant City Manager Patrick Wiemiller. The fine for not abiding by the ordinance is $1,000.
Wiemiller said because of limited police resources it is often not possible for officers to arrive at a reported site in time to witness the use of illegal fireworks. In 2015, the city passed an ordinance to allow third-party citations that can be issued if two witnesses are willing to sign an administrative citation, but the measure is rarely used. “People are not necessarily eager to step forward and be a part of the prosecution that way,” Wiemiller said.
One community member suggested that a “citizens volunteer patrol” group could be formed to respond to reports about fireworks instead of police who often have other calls that take priority over fireworks. “So maybe the next-door neighbor isn’t the one that has to step out and point his finger at his next-door neighbor,” he said. “By him making the phone call, perhaps the citizens volunteer patrol could come to the area and be the witness to what was happening.”
Another community member suggested raising the fines for offenders and giving a portion of the fine to the residents who report illegal fireworks. “Word will get out very quickly in those peer groups, ‘Hey, we can make some money,’ and they’ll do it,” she said.
Marvin Gerletti said illegal fireworks in the city has gotten progressively worse over the years. “I’ve lived here in Santa Maria since ‘64, and in the past six or seven years it is worse,” he said. “It’s like a war zone out there.”
Mike McGehee, of the Orcutt Polo Association, said he hoped that the sale of legal fireworks would not be affected. “I don’t know where this is going to go, but I’m hoping that in these conversations that we have, we’re at least intelligent enough to separate the two -- illegal fireworks and the "safe and sane" [fireworks]. We make a lot of money for nonprofit teams by selling the fireworks that people enjoy,” he said, adding that the Orcutt Polo Association was able to raise around $8,000 this past Fourth of July to fund tournaments, equipment and travel.
Lou Gilless, of the Rancho Junior Bowlers, said the sale of fireworks raised around $6,000 for the organization. “What we use this money for is we pay for any kid in the association that wants to bowl in the local association tournaments. We pay for the trophies and we also pay for the entry fee if they want to bowl in the state tournament,” Gilless said. “This is our only fundraiser for the whole year and I often wonder, 'If we didn’t have these kids in this bowling program, how many of them would be in a gang?'”
Santa Maria Police Cmdr. Dan Cohen said the issue of illegal fireworks was not unique to Santa Maria, and that educating residents about fireworks safety will be the most important part of reducing illegal fireworks use.
“This is everywhere,” he said. “It’s a widespread problem. Influencing human behavior is one of the greatest challenges of human history and that’s what we’re trying to do right now. We’ve had discussions about enforcement — enforcement has legal challenges, search-and-seizure challenges, it has resource challenges. Enforcement is part of this solution, but every time I’m hearing this conversation my mind keeps saying, ‘Education.’ Education is far more important.”
Councilman Mike Cordero said the fireworks situation in the city is intolerable. “The term ‘war zone’ was used here a lot. I was never in the war or the military, but if I had to imagine what a war zone was, it’d be what I experienced last Fourth of July. I’m appreciative of all the nonprofits that are here — there are many ways to raise money. This is not unique to any community. But there’s only one way to stop what is going on with regard to this. I haven’t made up my mind yet — I don’t know what my vote will be — but the one way to stop this is to eliminate and mitigate these illegal fireworks.”
The city will host another community meeting on fireworks at 6 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Mussell Senior Center, 510 E. Park Ave.