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The influence of the politically potent fireworks industry hung like smoke over the proceedings when a majority of Pinellas County commissioners recently sidestepped action to stop the sale of illegal fireworks in Pinellas.
Only sparklers and small noisemakers may be sold to or used by Florida consumers. Firecrackers, bottle rockets and other exploding and launching fireworks are illegal. State law says so. A county ordinance says so.
Yet around every holiday and sometimes for no apparent reason at all, residents are shooting off fireworks all over Pinellas County. And dealers, flaunting the law, are selling fireworks that are illegal.
County Commissioner Ken Welch believes laws should be enforced. And he has heard lots of complaints about fireworks. Residents have told him about having to stand outside their homes with garden hoses to prevent fires resulting from their neighbors' pyrotechnic excesses. Fire officials have reported that structure fires, car fires, brush fires and injuries to adults and children are caused by fireworks each year. And police have told him that illegal fireworks usage is so widespread that there aren't enough officers to keep up.
A few Florida counties, notably Polk and Miami-Dade, have managed their fireworks problem by creating local ordinances stricter than state law. Using the Polk ordinance as a model, Welch proposed a Pinellas County ordinance that would target dealers who sell illegal fireworks to the public.
Enforcement of the state ban on fireworks is complicated by a loophole that permits residents to use otherwise illegal fireworks for a few specific purposes, including scaring birds away from fish hatcheries, quarrying or working on a railroad. So fireworks dealers in Florida sell the illegal fireworks, but ask customers to sign a form that says they are buying fireworks for one of those legal purposes. Wink, wink.
Welch's plan would close the loophole a bit by requiring fireworks dealers to supply proof that their customers met one of the legal exemptions or risk being shut down. That, Welch believes, will reduce the flow of illegal fireworks into Pinellas and eventually the use of illegal fireworks by county residents. Welch points out that his proposal would not ban fireworks -- they are already banned -- but would give police a new enforcement tool. Large public fireworks displays by licensed technicians would continue to be allowed.
Welch's proposal was applauded by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, Sheriff Everett Rice, police chiefs, fire chiefs, fire marshals, paramedics and homeowners associations. But a majority of the commissioners waffled.
Commissioner Robert Stewart said he was glad the law wasn't enforced after the Super Bowl because he enjoyed residents' noisy celebrations. Commissioner Susan Latvala argued that people would just go over the county line to get fireworks. Commissioner John Morroni was uncomfortable taking away the "right" of people to shoot off fireworks and added, "We can't protect everybody from everything out there. That's not what government is for." Commissioner Calvin Harris equated use of illegal fireworks to protected self-expression, adding, "This is what life in a free society is all about."
They might as well have said to dealers and the public, "Go ahead. Break the law. Just have fun doing it."
That's an appalling message for commissioners to send. It is their job to make policy, write laws and protect the safety and welfare of county residents -- a point only Welch and commission Chairman Karen Seel seemed to recognize during the fireworks discussion.
A frustrated Welch asked his colleagues, "What do you say to residents who call (with complaints about fireworks)? Do you say, "You don't have rights, but the fireworks lobby has rights'?" Welch knows that fireworks companies contribute to political campaigns, and the industry was out in force at the Jan. 28 commission meeting.
At the end of the discussion, commissioners delayed and passed the buck, telling Welch to find out if Pinellas cities would enforce a tougher law in their jurisdictions.
Each county commissioner who looks the other way on this issue is breaking a solemn promise, made when they were sworn into office, to uphold the laws of Florida and Pinellas County. And they are encouraging an illegal activity that is disturbing the peace and creating a known threat to public safety in Pinellas neighborhoods.