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Home » Archives » June 2008 » Letters On Fireworks Ban

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06/05/2008: "Letters On Fireworks Ban"

Friday Harbor

To the Honorable San Juan County Council

I wish thank you for this opportunity to speak. My name is Don Burkhart. Who am I? Nobody really, just a concerned citizen of this great county in which we all live. I am also however, the organizer, sponsor (some might say rabble-rouser), of Fireworks Unrestricted LLC.

As you know, our referendum to place ordinance 28-2008, commonly known as “The Fireworks Ban” enacted by this body last June, was recently certified by the County Auditor . It is in that capacity, and with the support garnered by no less than 15% of the registered votes cast in the 2004 general election that I presume to address you today. I humbly ask that you grant me your attention and tolerance, in this, minute 14 of my recently-acquired fame.

I first wish to acknowledge the difficulty of the job that you folks hold. We the people elect you to represent us, to do our day-to-day business as best you can, and to lay down policy and framework with foresight that hopefully provides for our collective future in an ever-growing, ever-changing situation. I am certain that you do not hear this enough: Thank you. Thank you for all the hard work you do.

In our referendum effort over the past couple of months, I’ve been at the County Fair, the American Legion pancake breakfasts, and lopsided football games. I’ve lurked the streets and street fairs of Friday Harbor, Eastsound, and Lopez Village. As well, I’ve walked the gravel trails of Blakely, Center, Decatur, and other of the so-called non-ferry-served islands. I’m sure that, as folks like you who must campaign for election, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that at times it was sheer drudgery. But much to my surprise, that was not the rule, but the exception. I have been fortunate along the way to meet a lot of good people. These are the citizens who collectively comprise the backbone of our great island society. There are bankers, lawyers, no Indian Chiefs that I know of, carpenters, fishermen, firemen, and aid workers. There’s been artists, barbers, insurance agents, cooks, and many a retired folk. I dare say that if one was to examine closely the names on the petitions that we gathered, you’d find they span a wide cross-section of our County. And with all the respect to the Council that I can possible offer, the nearly singular question these folks posed was, “What the heck do those jokers in Friday Harbor think they are doing?” Like I said, your job is hard, not for the faint-of heart or thin-skinned.

I can report to you that the people of San Juan County are frustrated with their government. They are confused by its direction. They are a little, if not a lot, angry. And it pretty much all boils down to this one feeling, and that quite simply is, they are tired of being told what they cannot do. Whether it is guest houses or rainwater, whales or fireworks, the perception is that our freedoms are being systematically chipped away at. It is then salt in the wound when the perpetrator is the very people we thought we elected to protect them.

The obvious action of any legislative body for any situation is to “make a law”. I submit to you that this is akin to the societal malady we long ago identified on Blakely, that of “putting up a sign”. Making a law or posting a sign gives the maker the feeling of satisfaction that they have “done something”. But have they? Not really. The landscape is littered with laws (and signs). I am certain that each one of you view every day a dozen signs as you drive to and from your work. Can you honestly recall what even ¼ of them say? Signs and laws are the quite the same. Their purpose and intent gets lost in the clutter of each addition. We have enough laws, too many really, already.

Take personal fireworks as an example. By State law, for many years, it has been illegal to ignite anything that explodes and nearly everything that flies. When you talk with the citizenry about fireworks, what are the objections you hear? Folks worry of the danger of those flying things, and dislike (as do their pets) the noise of explosions. These concerns are not unwarranted. To address this, what does the Council do? Do they resolve to enforce the laws that already exist? No, instead they pass an ordinance banning those fireworks that neither fly nor explode. They post a sign, pat themselves on the back for having done something, and another American freedom is summarily snuffed. And so I implore you the Council to look very carefully at what it is you are doing. The phrase “there ought to be a law” is nearly obsolete, because there is almost always already a law! Don’t clutter the landscape with even more un-enforced ones. Use what you already have on the books, to their maximum utility, before you consider adding to the clutter. And move deliberately and with great prudence when considering additions to the clutter, knowing that each diminishes the whole of what is already at your disposal.

Especially egregious in the US is any law that contains the word “ban”. Another popular aphorism for this is the fabled “zero-tolerance policy”. These are the ridiculous rules that have me teaching my children to hide their needed ibuprofen when they go to school, slipping into a dark corner to take their legitimate medicine, lest they be expelled for drug use. These laws are based in the presumption that we are not thinking people, that we are not capable of lending judgment to a given situation. In doing so they strip us of the dignity of making an informed decision about what is reasonable and what is not. I have yet to meet the person who takes well to being stripped of their dignity. It is humiliating to be treated as though we cannot be trusted to take reasonable action. And yet, this approach seems to have taken over the land. Are there those whose decisions are unsound in the eyes of society? Yes. But that is the price of what we call freedom. It is part and parcel with the concept, and simply must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. “Freedom is not free”, so goes a popular saying. Those who claim that it is possible, while denying all persons the opportunity of making an individual informed judgment, know not what the term means. Freedom is a very personal thing.

And referring to the case at hand, have we learned nothing from our history? To ban, to make unlawful without exception is to forfeit all control. The Great Experiment of 1920 is an acknowledged colossal failure, and an good example of where such things lead . Rum runners, speak-easies, and Elliot Ness proved that well enough. I would argue the same is true of our Federal government’s never-ending “war on drugs”. For some 30 years we have exerted an incredible effort to interdict the import and use of illicit drugs, yet the situation remains largely unchanged from the day of the program’s inception. Contrast that with the realization in 1933 that alcohol was going to be consumed, and the very studied decision to accept that fact, regulate its use, tax it for revenue, and allow what was going to happen in any event, to happen as safely as possible, with oversight and regulation.

Banning fireworks is yet another example of this bankrupt principle. When some kids do get hold of some fireworks, and let’s be honest, it is going to happen endlessly, will they go down to the beach in front of everybody to shoot them off, where it is arguably the safest venue to do so? No, they’re not stupid. People will see them there and they’ll get caught and in trouble. So instead, they’ll hike up into the forest where no one can see, and where paradoxically the activity poses the greatest danger to us all.

The fireworks referendum has been certified. The easy thing for you to do now is to simply let it go to ballot in November 2009. I am hear to plead with the Council to not let things get that far. To be blunt, this law is a lemon. It is bad legislation that does not deserve to proceed to that stage. I realize I can be accused of promoting a self-serving outcome by advocating this course of action, but I implore the Council to exercise the power granted you by the charter to instead cancel this ordinance. It is bad legislation, and absent some catastrophic fireworks-related event in the interim has, at best, a poor chance of passing muster with the voters. With a ballot date of November 2009, IF the ban passes, it will not be in place until July 2011. But if not, it’s back to the drawing board and the possibility that no regulation can (legally) be forthcoming until 2012 or beyond! And that’s a real big IF. I will tell you that we garnered the over 1,500 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot in the first 30 days of the statutory 120 days provided. While admittedly nothing is for certain, do we really want to bet the farm on this bad legislation? I say not. In my opinion it faces near-certain defeat. It is not worthy of the elapsed and lost time, and the endless churn of community debate and letters to the editor it will spawn that ultimately may see it fail in the final analysis. I’m sorry Council, but this is plain and simply a bad law. It’s a lemon. It’s a turkey. Don’t squander another moment of your or the voters’ time on it.

I mentioned earlier that I had grown in this process. I was guilty at first of taking my particular circumstance and extending it across the entire County. In the many discussions I’ve had since in the process of gathering signatures, my eyes have been opened to the situations of others that are often starkly different than ours on Blakely.

We are blessed with the insular situation of having no tourists, no outsiders, no non-residents. As such we have the unique ability to apply our own enforcement mechanisms, largely in the form of social pressure, to ensure that our own fireworks practices are conducted in the safest manner possible, meaning in effect always on the beach, and always pointed at the water. It has been interesting to receive stern lectures from various other-island folks during this process, about the fire danger that fireworks represent to them. On Blakely, nearly the entire island is forestland. There has always been an absolute prohibition on fire of any sort, right down to smoking, on the bulk of the island. Our young are taught from the time they are born to challenge anyone, even (gasp!) adults that they see violating this principle. That’s scary for a small child, yet we make them certain that they’ll be backed up by their parents and the community at such time as they choose to do so. That is the insular world in which we live on Blakely Island.

But I have been educated that the same situation does not prevail on other, more public (ferry-served) islands. People are rightfully and justifiably just as terrified of fires as we Blakely-ites are. But they do not have the same controlled situation as we enjoy . I heard horror stories from different residents of San Juan, Orcas, and others. The apocryphal one is of a family arriving on vacation, a station wagon full of fireworks, pitching their tent in a forested park, and then letting ‘er rip! I was horrified. This is not a situation that should be tolerated in any community. That sort of behavior threatens us all.

And yet this same parable illustrates the disconnect in the logic of one-size-fits-all legislation. The situation on each individual island can and does vary greatly. As a county of Islands, San Juan is unique, in that each island has socially developed, mostly in isolation and ignorance of the conditions and motivating factors on other islands. Each island, certainly the non-ferry-served ones, is a discreet entity in and of itself!. What is a problem on one does not necessarily translate to some or all of the others. So while the vacationing family wagon can easily put rubber to the roads of San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, or Shaw, it can never do so on so the other islands. That simply is not a problem for us, and thus we need no solution to it that restricts our own rights of peaceful enjoyment. One size most certainly does not fit all. If the residents of an island wants to ban fireworks, most certainly they should be able to. But just as certainly, they should not have the power of doing so to other islands that do not share their same circumstances.

Whenever the Fed of State comes calling on the County with some monolithic proposal, say for example the oft-floated idea of Federal Marine Sanctuary status, the clarion call of dissent always centers on the loss of local control. Yet while County government seems painfully sensitive to such issues when it’s on the receiving end, it is rather oblivious to the same principle when applied to the giving end. Those of us downstream of County government deserve the same consideration and critical thinking as that the County seeks of the larger entities upstream of it. In a nutshell, one size does not fit all, especially in this County comprised of loosely-knit island empires. County government is elected and paid for by all of its citizens. If those of us on a given island were to withhold our property tax payments, we would most certainly gain the County’s notice rather quickly. Why make it come to that? Why not instead seek to acknowledge and engage the diversity of interests that makeup the whole County? We are far more like the Bahamas than we are Mount Vernon or Everett or Seattle or even Whidbey or Bainbridge Island. It’s a unique situation we have, that poses great challenges for any governing body, and yet that body has been chartered and formed for the precise purpose of doing just that.

But back to the ordinance and referendum. I have an obligation to, if I may be so presumptuous to refer to them as such, our constituents. Our petition signers. The Fireworks Unrestricted campaign was run not so much on the love of fireworks, as it was on the principal that it is the people, the residents and voters of San Juan County that get to decide what we can and cannot do. It is an issue of voter’s rights, of being told by six people huddled in a room in Friday Harbor what they can and cannot do. I promised each and every petition signer in this process that they’d get to vote on the question. To decide for ourselves what we want to do about this. I am committed to fulfilling that promise to those who supported us, and so want to make it clear that this principle is indivisibly coupled with my urging for you to cancel the current ordinance.

I again plead to you the Council to quickly and surely void ordinance 28-2008, and to then immediately engage in the development of new fireworks legislation the very real problems that we do have. This new, replacement ordinance would not ban, but rather regulate the use of fireworks in San Juan County. It would provide for designated areas on all islands, presumably beaches, where legal “safe and sane” fireworks are permitted to be set off. It would ensure some measure of island-wide safety in these areas, perhaps by providing a firefighting and medical presence during the evening hours of July 4th, as well as New Years. Along with this must be an educational effort to encourage the day-after clean-up by volunteers, to cleanse the beach of fireworks refuse and return it to its pristine condition for the other 363 days of the year. And lastly, this ordinance would provide for local control, by asking each individual island to define for itself its designated areas. A radical and new idea? Hardly. This same resident-designation process was used in 1975 when shorelines management was first introduced to San Juan County. The residents of each island were charged with the task of choosing their designations.

In closing, I note that it is in the power of the Council to refer measures to the ballot for an advisory vote. I propose that a fireworks ordinance be developed along the principles I have spoken on here today, and that it then be placed on the November 2009 ballot, instead of the current ordinance, for an advisory vote. I would propose that the Council very publicly commit to the voters that it will consider and treat the advisory vote as binding upon it, enacting the ordinance or not solely based on the outcome of this vote. Such a process would empower the voters of San Juan County to indicate to the Council what they want, and to exercise their reason and judgment on what constricts they choose to live under. And it engages them in the process, giving them “buy-in” to the results.

I wish to once again thank the Council for this opportunity to speak. And now my Andy Warhol 15 minutes are up, if not exceeded. It should then come as relief of us all in this room that I now return to my life as a run-of-the-mill citizen of Blakely Island and San Juan County.

Thank you.
Don Burkhart

REVISED "Sparklers & Civil Rights: Letter
(Editor's note: The following letter was sent in by Mr. Rosenfeld after his original letter [printed below this one] was challenged by Mr. Petersen as being unsupported by the facts. As a result, we received this revised letter that deletes comments on the content of Mr. Petersen's past columns) and includes this statement from Mr. Rosenfeld: I deleted the last sentence of the 1st paragraph over my misunderstanding of Gordy’s sarcastic style in one of his previous columns. My apology to Gordy.)

To the Editor,

Revised Response to Gordy’s FIREWORKS BAN Column:

Is it really more important to wrap yourself in the flag over the right to burn a sparkler one day a year, than be concerned with the assault on many of our basic civil rights these past 7 ½ years by the Bush Administration?

Many of the 4th of July fires I’ve been on here were caused by visitors. Even if we were responsible for our own kids, the problem would still be there. San Juan County joins many other, apparently unpatriotic Puget Sound counties, totally banning fireworks.

We have so much to lose. I’m reminded of one 4th of July fire on Mt. Dallas. We contacted the owner by cell phone to let him know we were protecting the house. He said, “Hell, with house, I can replace that! Save the trees!” We did.

Howard Howie Rosenfeld
Friday Harbor
ORIGINAL LETTER: Sparklers & Civil Rights

To the Editor,

Response to Gordy’s Fireworks Ban Column:

Is it really more important to wrap yourself in the flag over the right to burn a sparkler one day a year, than be concerned with the assault on many of our basic civil rights these past 7 ½ years by the Bush Administration? Which, if you check Gordy’s past columns, he not only supported the administration, he specifically supported the warrantless wiretaps!

Many of the 4th of July fires I’ve been on here were caused by visitors. Even if we were responsible for our own kids, the problem would still be there. San Juan County joins many other, apparently unpatriotic Puget Sound counties, totally banning fireworks.

We have so much to lose. I’m reminded of one 4th of July fire on Mt. Dallas. We contacted the owner by cell phone to let him know we were protecting the house. He said, “Hell, with house, I can replace that! Save the trees!” We did.

Howard Howie Rosenfeld
Friday Harbor
Booo on Firework Ban

My public safety peers and the County Council have made a disheartening decision to ban all fireworks. As a public safety employee, I am perplexed as to why this issue is at the forefront of public safety concerns. While I sympathize with the issues related to fireworks--unsightly garbage, distressed critters, occasional injuries and uncontrolled fire--I am unable to agree that banning them is the answer, and I am concerned that real issues are being ignored whilst this non-issue is being addressed.

As for priorities in public safety, of the thirteen deceased friends and family of mine, none were caused by fireworks. In order, vehicles, unhealthy lifestyle, cancer, alcohol/drug abuse, homicide, drowning and suicide (gun), were the killers in my circle"so far. I can only think of one time when a friend was injured by a firework and it was unarguably a really dumb mistake and only mentionable because of that. This leads me to ask a direct and serious question: Is our public safety administrators and County Council providing this policy for their own interests or for us, the people?

I will take the liberty (as you took mine) of pointing a few things out; First, be tolerant (July 4th is 1/365th of the year). Second, don’t be grumpy (I have little respect for those whose inner-child is all growed up). And third, if you are sincere about your concerns of noise and safety, lead by example and walk. Vehicles, boats and planes are far more detrimental to humanity than 2000 degree sparklers.

My fireworks days passed many years ago, but I have been looking forward to my five year old daughter’s delightful expression when I light her first fountain, hand her a burning sparkler or flee from an out of control spinner, and thus, passing on a tradition that was passed to me.

A firefighter for fountains,

Noel Monin
Friday Harbor

Reader Resents Fireworks Ban

To the Editor:

I am really going to resent it if I can't buy fireworks this Fourth of July. As long as I can walk into a store and buy cigarettes, alcohol, hand guns and drive a car all of which are more likely to hurt me than a sparkler, I am skeptical of the goal of making me safer through this ban.

Sure, if handled carelessly fireworks can hurt you but so can alcohol, handguns, and cars. I don't know that there is any safe way to use tobacco. So why choose this way to make our community safer. Maybe because the people who sell fireworks don't have the clout of the tobacco lobby?

Margaret Thorson
Waldron, WA

Tom Bauschke
John Evans
Mary Kalbert
Ron Keeshan
Gordy Petersen
Janice Peterson
Bruce Sallan
Terra Tamai
Amy Wynn
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