Contentious fireworks ban adopted in Covington

Council, residents debate the advisory vote and law enforcement

Next year will be the last year Covington residents can purchase, possess or light fireworks within city limits after the City Council passed an ordinance to ban fireworks by 2021.

The council voted 5-2 in support of the ordinance Tuesday night. Once the ordinance is adopted in 2020, it will go into effect by 2021.

The controversial ban created some tension between residents and council members as amendments were discussed. Businesses argued against the ban and residents opined about the recent advisory vote.

The ordinance was brought to a council for a vote after discussion during the council’s regular meeting on Nov. 26.

At the start of November, more than 40 percent of Covington voters turned in ballots on the topic of a fireworks ban. After the results were certified by King County Elections, the final tally showed 53.44 percent of voters approved of a ban and 46.56 percent voted no.

“This is a very hard decision for me because I have grown up with fireworks,” Covington Mayor Jeff Wagner said. “I used to put on my own public displays with hundreds of people attending displays in the past. But we always practice safety first. Unfortunately, safety has taken a back step. … So my girls may not like me, but I have to do what’s best for the city and that is public safety, making sure our citizens, our fire department and our police are taken care of.”

Covington City Manager Regan Bolli explained the new ordinance to the council. The ordinance would make it unlawful for any person to sell, possess, use transfer, discharge, ignite or explode any fireworks within the city.

“However, it does allow for public display,” Bolli said. “A duly authorized use for religious organizations, private organizations or persons … for a public display … a permit is required for any of those. It’s a very robust system to get a permit. There’s a lot of safeguards that are put in place. Plans have to be created, submitted to the city, submitted to the fire marshal. The fire marshal has to sign off on it. The city has to issue a permit. They have to have a pyrotechnic licensed professional operate it. So if you meet all those standards … then you will be granted a permit, which the fire marshal can terminate at any time.”

Before the ordinance was brought up at the meeting, residents spoke at the podium to argue the case for and against the ban.

Local veteran and nonprofit organizer Aaron “Sergeant Q” Quinonez spoke against the ban, saying it would put an end to firework fundraisers for his organization, Operation Restore Hope.

“Some people like to use the reason to ban fireworks because they want to protect veterans,” Quinonez said. “The funny thing about that is nobody asked me or my veterans what we thought about it or if we need protecting.”

Quinonez said his organization works to help prevent veteran suicides and provide PTSD services to retired military members. The nonprofit runs a fireworks stand at the Covington Home Depot each year to raise money for the organization and to meet veterans. Quinonez spoke about one Covington veteran and his wife, who was introduced to Quinonez at the fireworks stand.

The wife remembered how her husband and Quinonez connected and when her husband started expressing suicidal thoughts she reached out to Quinonez. One night the veteran went missing and Quinonez’s volunteers went out to help find him. Quinonez said the veteran may have lost his life if it wasn’t for Operation Restore Hope and the chance to meet during the annual fireworks fundraiser.

“Banning fireworks right here in Covington would do nothing to stop the flow of illegal fireworks or prevent people from using them improperly,” Quinonez said. “But what you will do is force law abiding citizens to venture to the black market to find dealers for their fireworks, and you would destroy the safeguards and regulated system that we already have in play. If you want to ban fireworks, it’s your choice, but don’t use veterans as a political tool to accomplish this agenda.”

A second veteran came up and argued for the ban. George Pearson said fireworks affect his family, pets and himself.

“I’m a vet too, but I’m telling you I don’t like to live in a war zone on the Fourth of July,” Pearson said. “If you look at our current regulations, it’s almost impossible to enforce it. Nobody knows what is illegal or illegal. They are going to burn down Covington. Fifty-three to 46 percent vote saying we don’t want fireworks anymore should go farther than those trying to sell them.”

Other speakers included a resident who said because of a chronic condition she cannot breath during holidays with fireworks, even in her own home, while other residents argued to keep the tradition alive for future generations. Danny Richards, a spokesperson for American Promotional Events also known as TNT Fireworks, spoke against the ban and offered up a few other solutions such as more education on firework safety and state laws. Richards also said TNT Fireworks has a phone app other municipalities use in conjunction with his business to help police enforce illegal fireworks.

Councilmember Joseph Cimaomo Jr. noticed the ordinance makes both possessing and using fireworks a misdemeanor. According to Covington Police Chief Andrew McCurdy, a misdemeanor could mean a resident would spend up to one year in jail or be subject to a fine, which would be set by a judge.

Cimaomo said he disagreed with the ordinance because residents could legally purchase fireworks outside of the city, hold them at their homes until the holiday where they may leave the city to light fireworks on a trip where it’s legal.

“We are telling them they are breaking the law and they could face a penalty of up to a year in jail for going somewhere?” Cimaomo said.

Councilmember Sean Smith requested an amendment to the ordinance to strike out the word possession, but the amendment failed before the council.

Councilmember Fran McGregor quickly announced her disapproval of the ordinance, saying the biggest issue is enforcement and the ordinance punishes those who follow the law and keeps letting those who ignore the law get away with firework use. McGregor said the biggest issue is police are unable to find witnesses when illegal fireworks are used.

Council members Margaret Harto, Marlla Mhoon, Jennifer Harjehausen and Smith all agreed with the ordinance, saying it was important to listen to the voters on the issue and to put public safety before personal enjoyment.

“Forty-one percent of people who registered to vote showed up and voted, the highest vote participation we had in an election in at least the last 15 years” Cimaomo said. “And 2,345 people voted no, their vote is just as important as the 2,691 people who voted yes. I represent all of those people while sitting here at this desk. But I cannot in good consciousness vote to support the possibility of giving someone a misdemeanor for possessing something when they could be using it out of town.”

“My own personal perspective, I love fireworks,” Harto said. “An advisory vote is an advisory vote, it means (voters) are letting us know what your perspective is as a citizen and we take it under advisement, because the bottom line for us is what is in the best interest for our whole city. My one regret on the direction we are moving into is now the pendulum has swung to the other side, that’s not a good way to do business.

“My hope is that this community, not these seven people up here or the police chief or whoever else has to enforce this, but our community will come together in support of a public display. Because if you don’t, eventually the pendulum will swing back the other way,” Harto said. “We need to be educated and educate each other and stand together in our neighborhoods when we see something happening that isn’t legal. I have not heard one HOA come to that podium and say what strategy they have developed to control fireworks. Not one, complaints many, but no one stepped forward and said how they handle it. … My first job is public safety in this city, and I’m going to support the ordinance.”

An earlier version of this story had a misspelling of a councilmember’s name. The correct spelling is Cimaomo.

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