The sale of Fourth of July fireworks in Culver City could end next year if one of three City Council challengers wins a seat in the April 8 election.
A victory by Andy Weissman, Jozelle Smith or Fred Ellis could provide the swing vote on the council and eliminate the last municipality on the Westside that allows the sale of so-called "safe and sane" fireworks.
The three are part of a field of five facing incumbents Richard Alexander and Ron Perkins, both fireworks supporters. Challengers Richard Nielsen, a deputy attorney general, and Lisa Tracy, a security supervisor, have not taken a position on the issue.
Weissman, an attorney, Smith, a retired columnist, and Ellis, a retired contractor, said they would vote against the annual licensing of fireworks booths, although Weissman said he would consider allowing the sale for one more year before voting for a ban. Veterans and charities are the only groups allowed to sell fireworks in the city.
Policy May Change
The election could bring about a reversal of Culver City policy because Councilman Paul Netzel, who has voted to allow fireworks booths in the past, said fire safety concerns prompted him to change his mind last fall. He joins Councilman Paul Jacobs, who for several years cast the lone vote on the five-member council against fireworks sales. Netzel and Jacobs are not seeking reelection, nor is Councilman Richard Brundo, who is a fireworks supporter.
Netzel's change of heart leaves the council one vote short of overturning the majority that favors fireworks.
Smith said she is against the sale of fireworks because "I think we are taking the chance of some day having a serious injury or property damage."
She also said injuries and fires in neighboring cities may have been caused by fireworks purchased in Culver City.
Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and the city and county of Los Angeles prohibit the sale or use of fireworks. Inglewood and Hawthorne allow them.
Alexander and Perkins said they favor fireworks sales because they support veterans' and charity groups and because they are a national tradition. (Perkins abstained from the vote on fireworks sales last year because, he said, he had filed a lawsuit against a Culver City fireworks distributor on an unrelated matter.)
Alexander said banning legal fireworks would encourage people to buy more dangerous firecrackers and bottle rockets. "I have gone over the hospital and Fire Department reports in the days around the Fourth of July," Alexander said, "and I find that the vast majority of fires and (injuries) are caused by illegal fireworks."
Culver City has had a good safety record, but the Fire Department continues to recommend against fireworks sales because of potential problems, according to Fire Chief Michael Olson.
"We have been very fortunate in having very few fireworks-related fires," Olson said. "Last year we had no reported structure fires from fireworks of any kind. There were three injuries, but I believe that they were all from illegal fireworks. . . . That does not prove that fireworks are safe or unsafe. It's just a fact."
Even supporters such as Alexander admit that it is awkward for Culver City to allow fireworks sales just blocks away from Los Angeles, where the devices are illegal.
"It is certainly a problem for enforcement in L. A. and I can see how they would be unhappy with our peculiar institution in Culver City," Alexander said.
The county chapter of the California Fire Chiefs Assn. has tried to lobby city councils in Culver City and elsewhere to ban fireworks.
In an interview last week Jacobs accused other council members of insensitivity because they refused to cancel last year's fireworks sales after a July 2 fire in neighboring Baldwin Hills killed three people and destroyed 48 homes.
"As the city of Los Angeles was burning across the street from us, we, in very hot weather, continued to sell fireworks," Jacobs said. "In the emergency situation that existed, it demonstrated to me . . . the height of insensitivity."
The Baldwin Hills fire was not linked to fireworks.
Jacobs said he regretted voting last spring for the fireworks sales, after opposing them for his first eight years on the council. He said he reversed his vote then because of the city's safety record and because of the money raised for charity.
Jacobs said the Baldwin Hills fire reinforced his earlier position against fireworks sales.
The fire burned just across La Cienega Boulevard from Culver City, leaving 300 people homeless and causing $16 million in damage. The day of the blaze Jacobs called Councilmen Alexander and Netzel and asked them to vote to cancel the final two days of the fireworks sales. Neither man agreed.
Alexander said he did not support canceling the sale because former Culver City Fire Chief George Sweeny told him the city faced no greater risk by allowing fireworks sales to continue.
Sweeny could not be reached for comment.
Netzel said the last-second ban would have been futile because most fireworks already had been sold.
"The only value (in canceling sales) would have been to make a statement," Netzel said.
"I think it's an unfair statement to say it was insensitive," he said. "No right-thinking person was not deeply disturbed by . . . the Baldwin Hills fire."
Both supporters and opponents of fireworks said they want to continue a large July 4 public fireworks show at Helms Field. Some proceeds from the fireworks booths have been used to pay for the annual show.
Alexander and Perkins said providing funds for the Helms Field show is another reason to continue booth sales.
Weissman said he would consider voting to continue fireworks sales for a year to help fund the Helms Field show. But he added that the city should consider alternative fund-raising ideas.