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Menlo Park is cracking down on illegal fireworks ahead of the Fourth of July, after the City Council approving new laws last week.
The council on June 8 passed a temporary urgency ordinance in which people who sell or use illegal fireworks could face $1,000 fines and/or up to six months in jail.
Councilmember Cecilia Taylor said the ordinance came forward at the request of some of her constituents, who have been impacted by the increasing fireworks in their community.
“Over the past several years, especially last year, the amount of illegal fireworks in the city of Menlo Park was unbearable for a lot of people,” Taylor said. Taylor represents District 1, where the Belle Haven neighborhood is located.
In addition to being an annoyance to the community, fireworks may also cause injuries, damage property or increase the risk of fires.
Taylor acknowledged the recent work of the police department in getting illegal fireworks off the streets but said that policy was also important as a tool for enforcement.
Councilmembers voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance, though Councilmembers Ray Mueller and Jen Wolosin expressed concerns that the penalties could be too harsh and have a disproportionate impact on lower-income families.
“When I think about the impacts of fines and things on lower income people, you know, $1,000 can really be debilitating,” Wolosin said.
“Over the past several years, especially last year, the amount of illegal fireworks in the city of Menlo Park was unbearable for a lot of people.”Councilmember Cecilia Taylor
Mueller said that six months in jail seemed like a lot but he would support the council in its decision.
Councilmembers supported possibly reducing the fine or having a sliding scale of fine amounts depending on the violation.
Menlo Park Police Chief David Norris said that there will be an education campaign to ensure that the public is aware of the new laws. He said officers will also be trained to use discretion when enforcing the law.
“Part of this is an education campaign with the tool of enforcement,” Norris said. “The idea would be to keep people from doing this type of behavior that could create injury and fire damage, et cetera.”
Norris said that they needed to put something in place, as police had limited ability to enforce state laws in the past.
“I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh, but I would think of it in the same terms that we think about stop signs or red lights. There’s a really easy way to avoid the fines that go with stop signs and red lights and that is to just stop,” Norris said.
Mayor Drew Combs said he understood the penalties may seem draconian but said that “to some degree, that is the intent.”
Combs said fireworks had become a major quality of life issue for the community, as they have woken people up late at night, scared children and pets and made people fearful.
Councilmembers asked to receive a report on how enforcement has been going either monthly or after the Fourth of July holiday season, after which they could revisit the laws and make changes if needed.
The council also approved the first reading of a regular ordinance, which would go into effect later and allow for ongoing enforcement. The temporary urgency ordinance would expire once the regular ordinance becomes effective.
Menlo Park’s ordinance models San Mateo County’s recently updated laws. On May 18, the county’s Board of Supervisors approved increased fines and possible jail time for people who sell or use illegal fireworks in unincorporated areas of the county.
More on the fireworks urgency ordinance can be found on the city’s website.