GUEST COMMENTARY: Columbia's fireworks law change reveals rifts

Friday, November 30, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Mayor Bob McDavid paused. He grinned wryly, and raised his right hand, palm up, in a gesture that suggested an awareness of the devil's advocate role he was playing.

"It would be possible for a police officer to sit near the city limits on St. Charles Road and see who's getting into their car and drive into the city limits."

He paused to acknowledge the laughter of his fellow council members and then assured them he was merely voicing the concerns of constituents. He later deadpanned, "My sense is that this ordinance is going to pass, and Columbia is going to be fine tomorrow morning."

In a 4-3 vote, the Columbia City Council outlawed possessing fireworks in October. While McDavid and others at the meeting downplayed the dispute, the wealth of public discussion and the epicenter of discontent reveal much about Columbia's politics.

The Columbia Police and Fire departments cited drought conditions and danger to children in their report urging the ordinance change. But firework injuries and deaths have remained fairly stable since 1996, according to an annual U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report. Inebriation, not age, seems to be the most reliable predictor of accidents. And while the drought may have led to more grass fires, there were no statistics cited at the council meeting showing fireworks had any effect on this year's total.

Police Sgt. Jill Schlude, in a phone interview a few weeks before the Council voted on the ban, cast some light on what prompted the law change.

"One of the things that's come up several times from residents, especially residents of the East Campus neighborhood area — that's where we receive a lot of our complaints — is banning fireworks, period," she said.

What the issue seems to boil down to is a battle in Columbia that has been waged for generations. It is the conflict between a temporary student population and residents who have called the city home through dozens of graduating classes, the fault line of which may be in East Campus.

It's nothing new. One need only leaf through the front pages of the Missourian in recent history to see this conflict play out. In April, the disagreement between the East Campus Neighborhood Association and the Beta Theta Pi fraternity became a political issue in the race for the Sixth Ward council seat. In 2009, residents voiced concerns about the large amount of trash left over from weekend parties lying unattended for days on East Campus curbs. The neighborhood was at the center of a noise ordinance change in November 2006.

East Campus Neighborhood Association President Janet Hammen, who's lived in the neighborhood for more than 35 years, said the neighborhood's character is less about its generational gap and more about a combination of activism from residents and the neighborhood's diversity.

"It's a different kind of neighborhood," Hammen says. "People feel very positive about living here."

The East Campus Neighborhood Association encompasses much of the area east of College Avenue, south of Broadway and west of Old Highway 63. On a Friday afternoon along University Avenue, lined with bricks dating to the early 20th century, students trudge to campus through falling foliage. Houses with five cars (all with out-of-state license plates) in the driveway sit next to ones with a single minivan. Two homes designated as historic properties sit on the vista-like Cliff Drive. A few older couples walk their dogs along the corridor overlooking a valley formed by Hinkson Creek.

Sarah Smith is a young professional who chose to live in East Campus precisely because of its motley atmosphere and varied architecture: single-family dwellings, historic properties and rental units. An empty lot near her home, however, became her ground zero in the fireworks fracas.

She remembers digging through her garden and finding what she thought were hundreds of pen caps buried beneath her flora. They were, in actuality, firework debris. When live charges began falling into her gutters, she knew she had to do something.

"What goes up must come down," she said, with a laugh. Fire concerns have plagued the neighborhood for years, Smith said. Residents exchanged hundreds of emails about the topic, including vigilante tales of irate homeowners chasing brazen lawbreakers in the darkness.

Jeff Akers owns what he calls a "100-year-old tinderbox" on Anthony Lane. It's a two-story off-white home with two swings hanging from a tree in the front yard. Leaning on the railing in front of the house, reading glasses dangling from his neck, he talks about the semi-commercial shells — the kind you'd see at a professional display — that have woken him in the night.

"As a kid, I messed around with them a lot," Akers says. "I understand that."

What he can't understand is a string of mortars shooting off around 2:30 in the morning. He describes the experience as teeth-rattling.

Smith agrees, saying she can understand fireworks displays around holidays. But on weeknights in the spring, there's no excuse for the racket, she says.

Like most political disagreements, the effort to ban fireworks pulled in a number of interested parties that have little to do with East Campus.

The proposed change baffled Bob Gerau, of Bob's Fireworks off Highway 63. In a phone call a few weeks before the vote, he promised he would attend the meeting and "raise hell."

Instead, Gerau took a reasoned tack at the Columbia City Council meeting.

"I look at this ordinance, and I say, 'My God,'" Gerau said before the council, his lowered head shaking from side to side. He argued many cities around Columbia have much less restrictive laws with regard to fireworks. And he's right. Jefferson City, Fulton, Boonville and California, among many others, do not criminalize possession outright.

Akers thinks the change is merely semantic and said he was surprised at the mayor's and others' reactions. Sale, storage and discharge were already outlawed, he notes.

"Alright, what are you going to do with them then? What's the point?" he asks rhetorically.

Smith, after weeks of picking debris out of her garden, was also puzzled by the mayor's reasoning and demeanor. She said McDavid had his mind made up before public comment even began and seemed to take offense to the physical evidence she presented the council — more than 400 discharged shells ("not even all of them," Smith said) in a shopping bag.

"However you want to spend your minutes is fine," McDavid said when Smith took her bag to the seated council members. The sentence struck Smith as disingenuous.

McDavid, continuing his tongue-in-cheek assessment of the proceedings, summed up the debate thusly:

"Let me just say this, if we're spending this much time talking about fireworks, things must be pretty good in Columbia."

In a community grappling with tax credit programs, public transit overhaul and an airport that may be costing it jobs from big-name firms, McDavid may be right to question the fireworks focus.

But on both sides of the issue there seemed to be a lack of awareness of the bigger issue prompted by the fireworks discussion. For a night, the explosive issue of fireworks possession cast smoke over another chapter in Columbia's growing pains.

Noise and the threat of injury or fire were compelling enough for four council members to accept what City Manger Mike Matthes called a law that won't change behavior. But evidence should be presented to show such measures will decrease those threats.

The City Council represents the interests of all Columbia — students, young professionals and retirees alike. Those interests are encapsulated in East Campus, and the decisions made there loom large for the entire city.

A legitimate public interest was served two months ago. But the council's ears should remain open to the voices of students on other issues. And students, who just showed up in huge numbers to vote for president, should recognize the importance of local politics. Even if the mayor's mannerisms suggest otherwise.

Kip Hill is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. He was previously a government reporter at the Missourian.

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Bill Weitkemper November 30, 2012 | 6:38 a.m.

Ordinance B267-12 Fireworks

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that city staff did not propose a better ordinance than B267-12 or that the city council did not seek a compromise. When you start your council meeting with a Boy Scout troop leading the pledge of allegiance you shouldn’t digress to discussing selective enforcement of the law.

A Scout is Obedient.
A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and troop. He obeys the laws of his community and country. If he thinks these rules and laws are unfair, he tries to have them changed in an orderly manner rather than disobeying them.

The recently passed ordinance should have been amended to allow for the transportation of fireworks through Columbia, the delivery of fireworks to licensed fireworks dealers living in Columbia and the storage of fireworks by people living in Columbia.

The ordinance should have also been amended to provide residents and visitors of Columbia the ability to possess fireworks without committing a crime. This could have been accomplished in a number of ways.

I think the best way would have been to simply allow an adult to possess fireworks during certain hours of the day during a certain time of the year (like from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM from June 20 thru July 4.

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