Anyone thinking of lighting illegal fireworks this Fourth of July, or any other time, now has another big reason to think twice: The Menlo Park City Council just enacted an urgency ordinance that makes anyone caught detonating fireworks subject to fines of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.
The discussion was brought forward from Councilwoman Cecilia Taylor, who said that illegal firework detonations in her district have had a significant impact on the community, and that after seeing a similar ordinance enacted for unincorporated county areas by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, she thought the ordinance could be a tool for the police department to get illegal fireworks off the streets.
The problem of disruptive and illegal fireworks has been escalating for the past several years, but worsened especially last year, she said.
"The amount of illegal fireworks in the city of Menlo Park was unbearable for a lot of people," she said. "Something needed to be done."
The new Menlo Park law is derived from a similar ordinance recently enacted in unincorporated San Mateo County by the Board of Supervisors that boosted existing fines for detonating illegal fireworks tenfold to $1,000 for any violation of the county's fireworks ordinance.
The Menlo Park ordinance, adopted unanimously by the City Council Tuesday, defines fireworks as inclusive of pyrotechnic devices that require licenses to use, along with "firecrackers, torpedoes, skyrockets, roman candles, cherry bombs, sparklers, chasers, snakes or other fireworks of like or similar construction."
In addition to safety risks associated with directly using fireworks, they also pose serious fire risks, especially following last year's extensively damaging fire season, the ordinance noted. Plus, those same weather and low-moisture conditions are expected to continue into the future, the ordinance added, citing Cal Fire.
While some council members worried about the impacts that a $1,000 fine might have on, for instance, a teen from a low-income family, others argued that the point was to have a harsh penalty as a deterrent.
"The penalties seem somewhat draconian, but to some degree, that's the intent," said Mayor Drew Combs, who said that his district has also been impacted by illegal fireworks and called it a "major quality of life issue." The fireworks have triggered fear, woken people up, made it difficult to sleep and disturbed pets, he added.
In a public comment, Menlo Park resident Adina Levin said that she was concerned that the ordinance could disproportionately impact lower-income youth of color compared to affluent, white youth. "It's not going to be a white, wealthy kid that goes to jail," she said.
"It's only some people who have the most fines and jail times, and that has really negative consequences down the line," she added.
Taylor raised the question of enacting a community service requirement as an alternative to the $1,000 fine, but City Attorney Nira Doherty said the police department doesn't have a community service program in place, and that nuisance ordinances aren't typically enforced with community service requirements.
Councilwoman Jen Wolosin said that her district also experiences the disruptive noise impacts of fireworks and raised concerns about disproportionate impacts.
Councilman Ray Mueller also raised concerns that the penalty seemed "pretty severe," while acknowledging that fireworks haven't caused disruptions in District 5, which he represents. "One thousand dollars for a specific family can be a big, big, big deal," he said.
While he favored a sliding scale to increase the fines for repeated offenses, he said he'd defer to the council members for whom the fireworks are a problem, ultimately voting for the ordinance "with reservations."
Police Chief David Norris told council members that he planned to encourage officers to exercise discretion and focus on educating the community about the new policy, and said that the ordinance would provide law enforcement with a new tool in deterring fireworks. He noted that just as the fines associated with other violations of the law, like running stop signs or red lights, there's a simple way to avoid them: "Just stop."
"If you were to just not discharge fireworks, you're not going to receive any fine," he said.
Email Staff Writer Kate Bradshaw at [email protected]