San José officials propose more enforcement on illegal fireworks

Mercury News June 17, 2015

SAN JOSE — With less than a month before Fourth of July, city officials want to add teeth to San José’s illegal fireworks ordinance by broadening the number of city officials who can cite scofflaws.

The proposal, which will be officially announced Thursday, would allow park rangers and code enforcement and community service officers to issue citations and fines for the use, possession, sale, advertisement for sale, transportation, and manufacture of fireworks.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Rose Herrera and Councilman Raul Peralez recommended the proposal be prioritized during the council’s June 23 priority-setting meeting.

Peralez said it’s unlikely the city will be able to adopt the additional rules before July 4, but it’s worth pursuing because illegal fireworks are used all year.

“The laws aren’t being enforced because of a lack of resources and because the police department is so understaffed,” Peralez said. “So this just expands the ability of who can give citations.”

Under current San José law, offenders can face jail time and fines up to $1,000 for illegal fireworks. But city officials say that they must be cited by sworn public safety officers and criminally prosecuted, a difficult burden for police and fire departments already stretched thin. The proposal still would allow criminal prosecution, but would empower other city officials to issue administrative fines for illegal fireworks, which could be handled more easily and at lower cost than a court case, making it easier to punish offenders. San José does not allow any fireworks, including the “Safe and Sane” variety that do not explode and are sold in some communities for fundraisers.

City officials say the number and intensity of the complaints related to illegal fireworks in San José have grown in recent years, with more than 2,000 calls last June and July. The City Council tried adopting similar regulations last year, but it didn’t gain enough support during the priority-setting meeting.

Vice Mayor Rose Herrera said enforcing the ordinance is more critical this year because of the drought.

“We’ve got people shooting off illegal fireworks, and with the drought, it makes it a lot more urgent that we do something,” she said. “Some of these devices can do real damage. I remember seeing a house fire that was caused by an errant fire rocket that landed on a roof.”

Herrera said city officials will conduct a workload assessment to ensure resources are adequate. But diminishing staffing levels at San José City Hall could make enforcing the ordinance a challenge. For example, the city only has 51 code enforcement officers.

Fire union leaders say the San José Fire Department reaches its call volume capacity in July and can use the help of non-sworn officials.

“Not only because we’re short-staffed, but because we have a significant number of calls,” said Jose Guerrero, vice president of IAFF San José Firefighters Local 230. “They’re going to help make things safer for the community and also for firefighters.”