Livingston fireworks ordinance raises questions of fairness

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 6, 2014 

— Changes to the city of Livingston’s fireworks ordinance has some people fired up, while raising questions about a city councilman’s involvement in the process.

“We do just as much in the community for the youth,” said Joey Chavez from the church group Knights of Columbus. “I don’t think it’s right they (another group) should automatically have a booth. I think it should be fair for everybody.”

Speaking at a City Council meeting this week, Chavez was referring to the council’s decision to hand-pick two nonprofits to operate fireworks stands each year. Despite the criticism, the City Council voted unanimously to give itself the discretion to select two nonprofits per year.

With only five fireworks booths, the city had more than 15 nonprofits competing to run one. The fundraisers bring in thousands of dollars for the groups. The remaining three slots would be selected using a lottery method, according to the revised ordinance.

Based on discussions from prior meetings, it appeared the council already decided that Livingston Youth Football would be picked to run one of the two “discretionary” booths – at the request of Councilman Jim Soria, who serves as a coach for the group.

Soria, who is running for Merced County sheriff this year, said he pushed to have the group selected after the death of the league president.

“It was more or less in memory of him,” Soria said, adding that he suggested the group be awarded the booth for two years in a row. “I suggested it for two years just because of the loss of our league president. It was just to establish it and make it strong.”

In addition to volunteering his time as a coach, Soria’s daughter is a cheerleader for the group. Despite his involvement, Soria said he doesn’t believe suggesting the group was a conflict of interest.

“I don’t gain anything from it financially, so it’s not a conflict,” Soria said. “We’re all volunteers, so we don’t get any financial gain. My daughter cheerleads, and we pay full price for her to be in it.”

However, a political ethics expert said conflicts of interest are not just based on financial gain.

“There are other types of conflicts of interest besides financial gain, and one of them is influence peddling. That’s when you use your influence to sway the vote,” said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus. “He should not have participated in the vote, and that’s what creates the conflict.”

In the past, the five fireworks stands were assigned to nonprofits using a rotation schedule, said Recreation Superintendent Jacquelyn Benoit.

Under the revised ordinance, the groups competing for the two council picks will provide a letter telling the City Council why they should be chosen. If they don’t get picked, Benoit said, they would be entered into the lottery for the three remaining spots.

Nonprofits that get selected by the lottery method would not be allowed to compete the following year; however, those hand-picked by the council could compete multiple times, according to the city attorney.

Livingston Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra said the City Council decided to have five booths operating in the city based on its size.

“The council decides how many booths based on the population of the city,” Samra said. “If you have too many booths, no one would make money. There are only so many people that will buy fireworks.”

Samra said the issue of competing nonprofits has never been a problem before, but he will speak to other city leaders to see if more fireworks booths can be added to make the process fair to everyone.

“That’s actually a good idea,” he said. “I will see if they can look at adding more (booths).”

Merced County Fire Marshal Hank Moore said there are no regulations that limit the number of fireworks booths a city can operate, and it’s up to the City Council to decide how many it wants.

“Every city is a little different, but the City Council can do pretty much whatever they would like,” Moore said, adding that Merced County has no limits on the number of fireworks stands. “It’s not a fire code issue. Fireworks companies will say it’s good to keep it open, and just let the market dictate how many booths to have.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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