SOUTH BAY ELECTIONS : Explosive Issue to Go Before Lomita Voters

Times Staff Writer

If not for midsummer fireworks, this city would not be having an election.

With no opposition, Lomita's three candidates for City Council are virtually guaranteed election on April 8.

Indeed, Lomita would have skipped this year's contest altogether, and the unopposed council candidates would have been automatically elected--if not for city ballot measures on the sale of fireworks. State law requires that a formal election be held for unopposed candidates when voters are already being asked to decide a ballot measure.

A debate was sparked last summer by a homeowners group that called for a ban on fireworks, complaining about the fire hazards, mess and injuries that it claims are the result of Lomita's longtime ordinance permitting the sale and use of "safe and sane" fireworks during the Fourth of July holiday.

Lomita service groups, which annually reap a combined $35,000 profit from fireworks stands, responded with the argument that a ban would cause a severe cutback in their charitable activities in the community.

Amid the tug-of-war, the Lomita City Council decided to let voters have their say. And in January, the City Council decided to let Lomita voters who go to the polls April 8 express themselves on the issue not once, but twice.

In advisory ballot measures, Lomita voters will first be asked whether the city should continue to allow the sale and use of "safe and sane" fireworks--the non-explosive kind that are permitted under state law unless cities or counties ban them. They include sparklers, smoke snakes and noisemakers.

In a second measure, voters will be asked to decide whether they would approve the sale of safe and sane fireworks if police protection is doubled, at the expense of fireworks vendors, during the evening shifts of July 3 and 4, and if users of illegal fireworks are prosecuted to the extent of the law.

Both measures are advisory, so the City Council is not obligated to follow voters' wishes. In interviews, several council members said they would probably decide the issue by mid-May.

The first ballot measure, Proposition A, was developed after circulation of a petition by the homeowners group, the Rolling Ranchos Residential Assn., which represents 211 residences in the south Lomita neighborhoods near the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Homeowners there, joined by a contingent of other Lomita residents, say that Lomita's Fourth of July fireworks expose children to burns and other injuries and their brushy landscape to fires.

Some of the fear about fires stems from a 1973 incident on the Peninsula, in which a fireworks-created blaze caused about $14 million in damage in Rancho Palos Verdes and Rolling Hills.

"A lot of residents here are scared to leave their homes on the Fourth," said Linda Makowski, president of the homeowners group and its Committee for a Safe Independence Day. "They stay in front of their homes hosing things down on the Fourth of July. . . . We are also concerned about children's safety. We don't think the ban on illegal fireworks is enough."

According to the state fire marshal's office, in the one-month period surrounding the Fourth of July in 1985, fireworks caused at least 258 fires in Los Angeles County, 56 of which are known to have been caused by legal fireworks. At least 109 injuries were caused by fireworks during that time, 41 of which are known to have been caused by the safe and sane variety. Local statistics were not available.

Fires, Injuries

"Usually every year, in this general area, there are injuries and fires caused by fireworks, even safe and sane fireworks," said Gary Henery, Los Angeles County Fire Commander of Battalion 7, which served Lomita until this year. "Fireworks are a problem from the standpoint that you can be injured by them, and from the standpoint that they can cause fires."

Many proponents of continuing sale of fireworks disagree that their sale in Lomita create problems. Moreover, they contend that that people will buy fireworks whether Lomita sells them or not because they are readily available in other South Bay cities, such as Carson, Inglewood, Hawthorne and Lawndale.

If Lomita does not sell fireworks, they assert, the only thing the community will get is a lot less money for its eight nonprofit service club vendors.

"The good this fund raising does is immeasurable," said Barbara Learnard, secretary of Citizens for Safe and Sane Fireworks, a Lomita residents' group composed of delegates from service clubs.

Money for Community

"I think it's important for Lomita voters to know that three-quarters of a million dollars (over about 20 years) has been put into the community from the sales of these fireworks," Learnard said.

Fireworks critics say the groups should get their money from other sources.

"The bottom line is that the fireworks vendors make about $35,000 a year when we could easily have a million-dollar fire or some kid having his eye put out," said Bob Gorman, a member of the homeowners group. "They should have bake sales or sell tickets to a fireworks exhibit in the park that could be put on by the city."

But Learnard countered: "You can only have so many pancake breakfasts, candy sales, peanut sales and the rest. We would be severely cut back."

Proponents say fireworks sales help fund such programs as student cultural exchanges, dinners for senior citizens, activities for the blind, Scouting programs and contributions for research on diabetes and other ailments.

Proposition B

Proponents of fireworks sales said that they suggested the second ballot measure, Proposition B, to help satisfy some of the homeowners' concerns.

City Council members, all of whom are members of the city service clubs that benefit from the sales, agreed to to put the measure before the voters.

"If people know the police will be there when they have a complaint, they don't mind the fireworks," said Richard Soria, president of proponents' group, who helped author Proposition B.

A spokesman for the Lomita sheriff's station said that doubling Lomita's police protection for two evenings, as provided in the ballot measure, would cost about $400.

Legality Unclear

According to the ballot measure, Lomita's service groups would be required to bear that cost. But City Atty. Leland Dolley has said he is not sure such a provision is legal.

In addition, Sheriff's Lt. Grant Johnson, from the sheriff's station, said that although the ballot measure calls for prosecuting those using illegal fireworks "to the fullest extent of the law," violators are currently prosecuted to the law's limits, as police see fit.

"That ballot measure would not change our enforcement efforts as they have occurred in the past, from that particular aspect," Johnson said.

Fireworks critics charge that Proposition B is an attempt to confuse the issue.

"We do not feel the city would be able to do what the proposition is asking them to," said Makowski, president of the homeowners' association. "The whole proposition was to turn things around and get the people who are on the borderline to vote for fireworks."

Limited Campaigning

Though the debate may be lively, campaigning by both sides has been limited so far.

Leaders of the pro-fireworks group, which has a campaign chest of about $1,400, said they plan to distribute flyers and take out advertisements. The anti-fireworks group, which has not collected campaign money, does not plan an extensive campaign, but says it may also distribute a flyer.

Both sides will meet before the Lomita Senior Council for a community forum on April 7 at 10 a.m. in City Hall.

Voter turnout is expected to be low. Turnout in the 1984 council election was just 14% of registered voters, and in 1982, only 9.7% went to the polls, according to the city clerk's office. The council races were contested in both those elections.

Low Turnout

"I think the fact that there's no councilmanic election to speak of will mean a lower voter turnout than usual, even with the fireworks issue," said City Clerk Dawn Tomita.

The two incumbents who are assured of election--in the absence of a successful last-minute, write-in campaign--are Robert Hargrave, 48, a financial consultant who has served three years on the council, and Harold Hall, 76, the owner of a Lomita paint store, who has served 12 years.

The third candidate is Peter J. Rossick, 62, an elementary school teacher and former fireman who has served as a Lomita planning commissioner for the last 14 years. Rossick will take the seat of Councilman Leonard Loy, who decided not to seek another term for health reasons.

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