Friday, February 10, 2017

Stephens' Fireworks Confab A Success

Last night rookie Costa Mesa City Councilman John Stephens hosted a meeting in City Council Chambers at City Hall for a couple hours of conversation about Fireworks in our city.  He seemed to be in his element, meandering around the crowd, keeping the pace moving.  This meeting was not recorded by City staff, but Barry Friedland from Costa Mesa Brief was on hand and recorded the event for viewing on his YouTube Channel.  (NOTE: Barry is very quick!  His video is available now!  Click HERE.)
For decades safe and sane fireworks have been approved for sale and discharge in Costa Mesa.  After Stephens kicked this meeting off before around 5 dozen people - it varied through the evening - Staffer Dan Baker took over and provided a slide show showing the recent history of this issue.  Those slides follow.
Then Police Chief Rob Sharpnack provided us with a history of enforcement, or attempts at enforcement, of our fireworks laws.  He compared the enforcement numbers from 2015 and 2016 and in all categories there were very significant increases.  Among those numbers was the number of citations issued - 79, which represented a more than 200% increase from the previous year.
The Chief told us that they put many extra staffers to work trying to police the city and snag folks firing off illegal fireworks.  At one point last year he had nearly 30 officers on patrol, responding to calls.  I couldn't help but think about what an aid to enforcement the old A.B.L.E. helicopter program would have been, but that, too, is gone - thanks to Jim Righeimer and Steve Mensinger.
Then Fire Chief Dan Stefano stepped up and affirmed much of what Sharpnack had told us, indicating that they team up and use undercover staff to try to apprehend lawbreakers.  He described it as a cat-and-mouse game.  He also affirmed that the grade and quality of the illegal fireworks for the past few years has been, in his words, "incredible".  He stressed their goal of safety for the populace and asked for the help of the public in that effort.

Stephens jumped in and thanked him for the information and observed that the calls for service for both the Police and Fire organizations is significantly higher than a year ago.
He then did a brief, informal poll.  He asked how many in the audience - at that time over 50 people were in attendance - wanted NO fireworks in the City.  The response was very small - me and a few others raised our hands.  He then asked how many wanted to retain safe and sane fireworks.  That response was basically everyone else.  His third question was how many wanted illegal fireworks... few raised their hands.
He then postulated his thought about some kind of community fireworks event - perhaps at the Fairgrounds or OCC, at which a small professional show would be held and food trucks and bands would be available.  He also wondered about the duration of fireworks, postulating that it may be better to have them only on the 4th - not many days on both sides of the holiday.
Then he invited members of the public to step to the microphone - or have him deliver his wireless mic to them - to express their views, regardless what they were.  There was no time limit imposed other than Stephens himself deciding if a speaker was running too long.  That only happened once.  Nearly two dozen speakers participated.  I won't try to quote every one, but will give you a flavor of the discussion.  Most of the speakers had some tie to youth sports or other organizations which benefited from the sale of fireworks, but some were simply concerned residents.  You can watch the Costa Mesa Brief video, probably later this weekend, for the details of the discussions.
Stephens asked what percentage of their operating expenses were covered by fireworks sales.  The answers varied from a high of 100% for the Youth Service Association to a low of around 25%.  Several members mentioned percentages in the 70% - 90% range.  My take from that subject was that youth sports and the others depend very much on fireworks sales for their operations.

When asked by Stephens about specific dollars a few volunteered numbers like $8,000 to $30,000 a season.  Others played it closer to the vest.
The types of expenses these Fireworks revenues cover ranged from uniforms, travel costs, banquets, equipment, scholarships for kids unable to meet those costs and, according to one speaker, filling the refrigerators of families of kids unable to otherwise properly feed them.
Flo Martin may have represented the apprehension of many in the audience when she spoke of her concern for the safety of her home due to illegal fireworks.  She brought with her a box full of fireworks residue removed from her roof after last July 4th holiday.  It was frightening, particularly since we've experienced exactly the same thing here on the other side of town.
If there was consensus I would say it was the problem of the illegal fireworks, which piggyback the use of safe and sane fireworks in most neighborhoods around town.  Unfortunately, catching a person actually setting them off is nearly impossible.  That's why the public safety folks need our help. 
Stephens grilled Sharpnack at one point about the wisdom of residents using their cell phone cameras to video record miscreants exploding illegal fireworks, postulating that the video would be sufficient evidence to prosecute the violators.  Sharpnack said no, and gave reasons.
Other participants expressed concern for pets, seniors and veterans during the Fireworks season.  It's become a season because the last city administration allowed the explosions for several days, not just one.
One speaker, Helen Evers, said she simply leaves Costa Mesa over the summer and spends times in other nearby cities - Laguna Beach, etc., - where fireworks are not permitted.
Speakers wondered if the fines for violation of our laws are large enough.  Nobody had an answer for that.  However, at one point Stephens asked Sharpnack how much money the city received for those 79 citations last year.  He didn't have an answer because the CMPD does not do the collection.
One speaker observed that it's much easier for the boosters to spend a week or two in the preparation, sale and clean up of a fireworks stand than it is to sell cookies, candy, calendars and the like 365 days a year. 
Robin Mensinger - yes, the wife of the recently-deposed mayor who is responsible in great part for the multiple days of fireworks - expressed the view that it's a lot of hard work operating a fireworks stand for relatively small payout.  She had done a little math and decided that the 36 authorized organizations (see chart above) that can operate fireworks stands probably generate about $350,000 for their efforts.  Well, here's an idea - City Manager Tom Hatch has a slush fund of $1 million each year - how about carving off a third of that and parcel it out to the youth sports groups and kiss off the fireworks?  Other cities find ways for this to happen.
John Kelly, VP of TNT, the primary supplier of all the safe and sane fireworks in our city, spoke with great polish - he's done this many times.  He told us nearly 250 California cities now permit fireworks.  He called those who sell illegal fireworks criminals and described a few categories of vendors of that stuff, starting with a guy who rents a truck and motors over to Pahrump, Nevada and spends $10,000 to load up with illegal fireworks, then trucks it back home to Southern California and peddles it for 5 or 6 times that much.

He also described the 53 foot containers full of fireworks coming off ships in the Port of Long Beach which are then delivered to sites around our area by what he described as organized crime.
He told us that the money raised by selling his product will be going directly back into our community.  Stephens DID NOT ask him how much his company makes on Costa Mesa fireworks sales.  It would be good to know that number, but there is no prayer of getting it.
All in all I'd say the evening was a success.  Stephens allowed each speaker to vent and encouraged everyone to speak.  We heard the full range of concerns and experiences.  We know how much the organizations depend on these dollars.  We know the public safety organizations are not equipped to monitor and enforce our laws on those days each year.  We know we need more cops and firefighters, as several speakers opined.  We know they need our help, but are unlikely to get it because, as Kelly observed, those folks firing off the illegal fireworks are our neighbors - the guy next door or his cousin Charlie from Tustin.  The illegal fireworks will continue until the community decides to actually aid in the enforcement.
Stephens closed by telling us a story about his youth, in which he accidentally set a neighbor's roof afire with illegal bottle rockets.  Most chuckled, but it was an uneasy chuckle.
Thanks to John Stephens for this effort.  It's not clear what he will do with the information he gathered - perhaps try to influence his fellow council members to make adjustments to our fireworks rules.  Many of the complaints revolved around the multiple days permitted for setting off fireworks.
And thanks for those who turned out for this event.  The participation was excellent, with most factions and viewpoints represented and their positions and concerns were clearly articulated.
From my standpoint, I'm still against fireworks.  I fear the danger to kids - no child's eyesight or lost limb is worth it.  I think we should find a way to have a community fireworks extravaganza - perhaps at the Fairgrounds - where sections of the community could rope off a parcel ( a "booth" as it were) and have their community fireworks on July 4th at that site, supplemented by a real, professional show for all to see.  Stephens suggested something like this, involving bringing chairs and blankets, listening to bands and picnicking before shooting off the fireworks after dark.  Seems worth discussing.  Perhaps it could involve a competition between neighborhoods - much like the Newport Beach Boat Parades - and award prizes for merit.  Youth groups still sell safe and sane fireworks, which would be detonated at the Fairgrounds and illegal fireworks would be more easily policed.  Almost anything to keep bottle rocket residue off my roof, thank you very much.

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Blogger mesa verde madman said...

This is a tough one for me, as I work in two stands each year (one for school, one for sports) to raise money for different groups, both of which spoke last night.

But I HATE the fireworks - the smoke, the noise, etc. We usually leave on the 4th, but if they can shorten the number of nights it's legal to light them, and go hard after the morons that light the illegals off, that would be awesome.

Easier said than done.

2/10/2017 06:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Where's My Coffee? said...

I like the idea of a central party for legal fireworks. It would almost have to be at the fairgrounds, as I don't see another place large enough for that kind of activity. Alas, nothing beats a good BBQ at home with friends and lots of beer. So, here we are.

That said, in my neighborhood, its so packed with "out of towners" its pretty bad. Drunk women exposing themselves, out of towners walking the neighborhood carrying their alcohol (no, I won't provide the address). Its just not a healthy or safe situation.

I do agree that the youth sports need this activity, as they don't seem to be able to raise money any other way. I wonder how all those other cities manage and we can't? I think they said it, that this is "easier" than other methods. So there you have it. Its not that it can't be done, its just that its easier. And that's fine, if we can figure out how to keep them out of areas where people don't want to be subjected to the noise, trash and inconvenience. There are people who are actually afraid of the noise. One of my neighbors had to actually be hospitalized due to the stress on July 4, and this was before dark. These people have to be considered also.

So kudos to John for attempting an open dialogue on the subject. I'm looking for some solutions now.

2/10/2017 08:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Tom Egan said...

I'm pleasantly surprised to read of such a civil exercise of citizenship happening again in CM. Kudos to John for his sterling leadership.

After experiencing six years of Mensheimer's abject incivility, I had forgotten that John's kind of meeting is what we used to have, and should ALWAYS have.

We just can't afford to let the foxes back into the henhouse! No matter how much they might support youth sports.

2/10/2017 03:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Arthur Nern said...

Stephens brings people together to try and solve problems, whereas Das Rigmarshal only thrives when he attacks public employees and tries to divide everyone. Keep going John!

2/11/2017 12:56:00 PM  

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