Input from several residents, who were both in favor of and against city staff’s recommendation to ban the use of fireworks within city limits, moved the volatile discussion during the Monday night Newton City Council meeting.
Two weeks after council members voted 4-2 to approve the first consideration of an ordinance amending the city fireworks code — prompting only one citizen and the entirety of the council to speak publicly on the matter — the conversation certainly thickened at Monday night’s council meeting but did not sway members’ votes.
Randy Ervin was the first person to address the council, stating he was not in support of the fireworks ban. Prepared with his own set of notes, Ervin confronted city staff’s reasoning behind the fireworks ban, which is said to “enhance the health and safety of residents, reduce incidents of property damage and to mitigate noise issues.”
Acknowledging the safety concerns, Ervin was skeptical of the claims that fireworks use directly affects public health, contradicting Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik’s stance on the subject altogether. Wellik, who is largely in favor of the ban, has stated repeatedly fireworks use can affect people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and respiratory issues, and can cause serious, if not fatal, injuries.
“I don’t believe health is part of it,” Ervin said. “I think that’s one of the reasons right off the top that we should reconsider this.”
Ervin also drew criticism toward the claims of property damage, doubting any of the assertions have been backed up with hard physical evidence and also believing the council has yet to see any proof.
Despite his assessments, Ervin did offer his own solutions to mitigating noise issues, stating he is a firm believer that he should not tell the council he does not like what it is doing unless he has “an opportunity to give (members) some options and some other things to consider.”
Before continuing with his proposed solutions, Ervin paused to commend council members Mark Hallam and Craig Trotter for offering what he believed to be “considerate alternatives” or “viable options” to the fireworks ban.
At the Nov. 19 Newton City Council meeting, both Hallam and Trotter voted against the ban and proposed three amendments to the first consideration of the ordinance. Hallam entertained a revision to allow fireworks on July 3 for five hours as to not conflict with community celebrations. After it failed to pass, he motioned for a similar amendment of five-hour use on July 4. It, too, failed to pass. Trotter proposed an amendment to prohibit the use of fireworks shells larger than one inch in diameter, which also did not pass.
Ervin urged the council to reconsider the ban and leave the ordinance as is, pointing out that it falls under the state-allowed fireworks laws and that “nothing is wrong with how it is currently ran,” he claimed. To alleviate noise complaints, Ervin suggested the council alter the window of time for personal fireworks.
“I get it that a lot of people go to work on July 5, so maybe they don’t want to be hearing loud bangs and whistles and pops the night they have to get up at 6 in the morning to go to work,” Ervin said. “So what if we look at the possibility of (July 3) for maybe a 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. type timeframe.”
Since several people have the day off on the Fourth of July, Ervin contended there would be “less noise control, less nuisance and it also affords the people of Newton an opportunity to do their own personal fireworks” while still being able to attend the city fireworks display. He also proposed the city could allow fireworks usage the weekend before July 4 for a few hours.
“Again, that gives us an opportunity for those of us who like to celebrate the Fourth, that have grown up celebrating the Fourth with fireworks and the pyrotechnics, to do that,” Ervin said.
Another solution Ervin advocated for was to submit the fireworks ban to some kind of community driven election process in November 2019, stating it would allow officials to know what the city really wants. Near the end of the council meeting Monday night, Mayor Mike Hansen announced he and City Attorney Matthew Brick would look into the legal possibilities of this particular option, unaware if the action would be possible.
“Get the citizens’ input, not just a few people that have shown up at a workshop, not just a few people that sit on the council — not that I don’t respect you all — but why not get the vote from the citizens,” Ervin said. “Let’s put it out there and let them decide.”
Ervin also mentioned fireworks use within city limits during New Year’s Eve. Currently, the city allows its citizens to discharge fireworks from 9 a.m. Dec. 31 to 12:30 a.m. Jan. 1. Ervin said he would support a decision to remove the usage of fireworks during New Year’s Eve.
“I have more concerns on a dry Dec. 31 day. If you don’t have snow, if you don’t have moisture, if you’ve ever been around here and you look in the pine trees in December, there is much greater fire threat in December than there ever is in July,” Ervin said.
The last solution Ervin suggested to the city council was the possibility of issuing permits to citizens, allowing the city and its police officers to have a list of who is allowed to discharge fireworks on their own personal property and would therefore give the Newton Police Department an opportunity to better enforce the law and issue citations.
“I’ll tell you how important this is to me: my lovely wife hanging out over here in the corner would much rather be doing something else this evening,” Ervin said. “Mainly having dinner with her husband on their 30th wedding anniversary. She knew how important this was to me and how important it is to the people of this city. City council, I’m asking you, please reconsider this ban.”
Citizens in favor of ban
Dixie Cassady continued the discussion by humorously asking if people from the neighboring state of Missouri were smarter than the people living in Iowa for being able to shoot off fireworks more freely. She then challenged Ervin’s claim that fireworks do affect public health if it adversely disturbs veterans with PTSD, contesting her father, brother and first husband were all in the military. Although she did agree with Ervin’s solution to issue permits to fireworks users.
“They have the same rights to not have fireworks as the people do want fireworks,” she said.
Diane Smith, who had attended the fireworks town hall meeting in March, said she had never really thought a lot about fireworks and had occasionally heard people set them off around her neighborhood before former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed legislation in 2017 allowing the use, possession and sale of consumer-grade fireworks.
Admittedly, Smith said she would like to see a ban put in place. The first year fireworks were allowed within Newton city limits, she claimed fireworks debris landed in her yard and upset her pets. Although Newton currently allows use of fireworks on the Fourth of July between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., Smith argued people shot off their fireworks before and after the holiday.
“I don’t hear them just between the time limits that are allowed (and) I hear them later into the night,” she said. “It’s too bad that people can’t follow the rules.”
Stephen Sanfratello also approached the council and mentioned his appearance at the town hall meeting almost nine months ago. Originally from a small community in Pennsylvania, Sanfratello said he experienced the same problem with fireworks and suggested the main fireworks offenders are not adults.
“It’s these kids,” he said. “…I’m sorry. I’m sure there are adults doing it, too. The ones that I see are kids. They’re skittering, they’re scattering, they’re lighting these things off.”
Targeting Ervin’s permit idea, Sanfratello said even if people had a license to use fireworks does not mean they should shoot them in a residential neighborhood. The Newton man admitted he does not like fireworks and never has. He said they can be safe in the right hands but maintained the idea that kids are not being supervised when using fireworks.
“Some of the things that they’re lighting off, these are like bombs,” he said.
Although not opposed to residents firing off fireworks in an open and controlled area, Sanfratello said they do not need to be discharged in residential areas since homes are too close to each other. A rocket, he added, had hit an umbrella in his and Smith’s backyard, scorching the material; however, it had not caught fire.
“But I thought to myself, ‘What if we weren’t home?’” he said. “Our house catches fire and it goes — conjecture. I just wanted to throw it out there. I think a fireworks ban is probably warranted. I think the people that want to do it should probably be licensed.”
Fireworks proprietor and Newton Park Board member Adam Vandall closed the citizen input session Monday night. Highlighting Smith’s claims that citizens abused the allotted times to use fireworks, Vandall said a ban is not going to change or stop such actions from happening.
As someone who sells fireworks, Vandall said he stressed buyers to not set off the consumer-grade pyrotechnics beyond the ordinance times.
“That’s what I wanted because I kind of felt this coming,” he said. “I don’t want to see this happen. I think the fact that calls are down this year, I think you put in some teeth to do some enforcement … I think that’s the right direction. A total ban though is not a good idea.”
He did agree with Ervin’s proposal of changing the day and time in which citizens can shoot off fireworks, even advocating for use the weekend after the Fourth of July.
After all five residents offered their two cents on the matter, Hansen commended the speaker, saying there are good people on both sides of the fireworks topic, which he described as a “tough issue,” an issue that some residents have taken to social media to express their stances on.
Kevin Cook created the Facebook page “Saving Fireworks for Newton, Iowa” (www.facebook.com/NewtonFireworks) in response to city council’s decision to approve the first consideration of the fireworks ban within city limits. Against the ban, Cook said the page — which has only received about 14 likes — is a way for people in support of fireworks to organize and promote other citizens to reach out to their council members.
Conceding the concerns surrounding fireworks use, Cook opted there are other solutions than an outright ban. He advocated proper education would be “a much better avenue to take.”
“Showing people how to handle fireworks safely,” he said. “Having a bucket of water nearby or a hose ready. Instead of banning something completely, that seems to avoid the problem. Why don’t they tackle this problem head on and engage the community in ways that they can teach people how to practice fireworks safety?”
Ultimately, the city council voted 4-2 to approve the second consideration of the ordinance.
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org