A potential ban on the sale, possession and firing of fireworks within Fulton city limits was stamped out during Tuesday evening's Fulton City Council meeting.
The proposed ordinance was defeated in a 5-3 vote — with Ward 2's Jeff Stone and Mary Rehklau, Ward 3's John Braun, and Ward 4's Rick Shiverdecker and Bob Washington all voting against a motion to advance the ordinance to a third reading.
Instead, council members agreed to look into enforcing and perhaps tweaking the current fireworks ordinance.
This vote followed impassioned pleas by multiple firework salespersons, most of whom operate within Fulton city limits. Five people involved in the fireworks business asked the City Council not to damage their livelihood and Fulton's ability to celebrate July 4.
"I understand that residents have been able to by fireworks in the city for about nine years," Mike Gardner said. "Rescinding this ordinance that was put in place nine years ago is taking away the right of people that have been able to enjoy this and celebrate the Fourth of July within city limits."
City Council members initially proposed the fireworks ban as a way to address the annual "fireworks war" in and around Carver Park — a tradition that has some Fulton residents concerned for the safety of participants, onlookers and surrounding property.
Fireworks stand operators who spoke Tuesday agreed the fireworks war is dangerous — and fireworks safety is important.
"If any of you have visited my tent this season, you know that I'm that business owner, I'm going to ask you questions and I want you to ask me questions," Dava Gardner said. "I want to teach firework safety to anyone who comes into my business."
Most said they're well aware of the fireworks war, but according to 15-year fireworks sales veteran Susan Peterson, the war took place even before fireworks sales were allowed within city limits. A previous ordinance banning sale, possession and firing of fireworks within city limits was revoked and replaced with Fulton's current ordinance in 2011.
"People have come in and mentioned the street wars ever since I started," Peterson said.
She operates her tents with the help of her six sons, and selling fireworks makes up a significant amount of the family's annual income. And, she pointed out, when she sells fireworks within city limits, sales tax money goes back to the city.
"When I was informed I could sell within city limits, by the chief of the fire department himself, he said the tents help the city because of the taxes," she said. "That was the only reason I was able to come into the city."
Instead of banning fireworks wholesale, the tent operators recommended alternatives.
Mike Gardner suggested the police focus on enforcing Fulton's current ordinance, which bans firing fireworks in city parks and shooting fireworks from vehicles and at people and structures.
"As a tax-paying citizen, I'm appalled to know that the police, who are paid by the community, just stand back and watch these activities and are not proactive to get ahead of the issue," he said. "I wouldn't want to be an officer who goes into the middle of that."
He suggested an earlier closure time for Fulton's parks — perhaps at sunset or around 8 or 9 p.m.
Ben Muzzey, a Columbia-based sales manager for Spirit of '76 fireworks who works with a number of Fulton vendors, offered insight into what worked for Columbia. The city had its own fireworks war to contend with until recently. As an industry observer, he said, he hasn't seen city-level firework bans work well. Muzzey said the real solution for Columbia was monitoring fireworks war plans on social media then proactively increasing police presence wherever the war was set to occur.
"The firework wars are definitely not OK, by any means, but I don't think a ban will be the solution for it," vendor Tim Thurber added. "You're hurting a lot of the retailers here in town who are doing everything that is asked of them. And you're hurting a lot of people in town who are using fireworks per the ordinance as well."
Fire Chief Kevin Coffelt said, while the firework wars are nothing new, "They've gotten worse over the years. I've never seen anything like this past year."
City Council members agreed something should be done, but they differed on whether a ban was the best solution.
"To go from 100 down to zero is not an appropriate reaction, in my opinion," Stone said.
Braun pointed out even though the current ordinance forbids many of the behaviors that make the fireworks war dangerous, the ordinance hasn't been meaningfully enforced to stop the fireworks war from occurring. At a previous meeting, Fulton Police Chief Steve Myers told the council it's too dangerous for officers to intervene once the "war" is underway.
"One sergeant had his mask caught on fire," Myers said. "They were shooting mortars at my guys, firing over the houses so we couldn't see who was shooting."
At Tuesday's meeting, Ward 1's Ballard Simmons (who voted in favor of moving the ban to a third reading), said ideally, law enforcement would shut down the "war" before it could get off the ground.
"If we don't ban (fireworks) — if we keep the ordinance as is — can you shut down the war?" Simmons asked.
"Yes, we can," Myers said. "We will."
With the fireworks ban dead, Stone, Rehklau and Shiverdecker suggested making some changes to the current ordinance. Stone floated options that included making it easier for residents to file a noise complaint regarding fireworks — currently, they're required to fill out a form at the police department; Stone suggested a phone call would be more practical — and potentially restricting the sale and/or firing of certain aerial fireworks.
As City Clerk Courtney Crowson pointed out, "We've got quite a bit of time to discuss it."
If efforts to suppress the fireworks war fail in 2021, the City Council may revisit a ban, Braun said.
Following the meeting, the fireworks vendors expressed relief, mixed with some trepidation about whether changes to the current ordinance could impact their businesses.
"I'm glad they didn't push us out of town," Peterson said.