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Hobbs may add teeth to fireworks rules

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Hoping to quiet the rumor mill while sharing additional information, the Hobbs City Commission discussed – but took no action on – proposed changes to the ordinance governing how the city addresses fireworks.

Meeting virtually Monday due to COVID-19 restrictions from the governor’s office that went into effect earlier in the day, the commission heard from Hobbs Fire Inspector Brandon Roberts. He said issues with fireworks, from grass fires to lost pets to personal injuries, are only increasing.

“This isn’t just a Hobbs problem,” Robert said, noting revelers launch more than 150 million pounds of fireworks annually across the nation. “2020 was probably (Hobbs’) most active year with fireworks.”

The proposed changes to an existing fireworks ordinance first came to light in October. The city’s current ordinance was written in the early 1990s and last amended in 2001. One of the major drawbacks to the existing ordinance is an apparent lack of enforcement, commissioners said.

“I think we’re going in the right direction,” District 6 Commission Don Gerth said. “But I’ve heard from several constituents, if we’re going to have an ordinance, we have to enforce it.”

If adopted, the proposed amendments would give enforcement power to the Hobbs Fire Department, with the assistance of Hobbs police.

Under the proposal, violators would be given the option to either surrender their fireworks for destruction or receive a citation. State law spells out what types of fireworks are prohibited, it was noted, with cities given the option to put stricter restrictions in place.

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb told the News-Sun on Tuesday part of the enforcement issue was simply that people didn’t report the use of prohibited explosives because the current ordinance wasn’t being enforced.

“If we get and ordinance and (residents) see the police and fire departments working together, going out and stopping the number of people who are taking advantage, that would increase the number of calls exponentially,” Cobb said.

“It’s kind of like a neighborhood watch thing – it only works if neighbors work together,” he said. “When citizens see they are seeing positive action, the community will get more involved in affirmative actions to address some of the problems in their neighborhoods.”

Enforcement wasn’t always a problem, Roberts told commissioners. A 19-year veteran of HFD, Roberts said he remembers a time when officials did confiscate and destroy illegal fireworks.

Another change in the proposed ordinance would establish so-called “safe zones,” open areas away from homes, where individuals could light off fireworks that are otherwise prohibited within the city limits. Residents found to have prohibited fireworks would also be given the option to take them to one of the safe zones to light them off under the proposed ordinance revisions.

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But, given the fact simply possessing certain types of fireworks is against the law, District 2 Commissioner Chris Mills was concerned the safe zones would be an ineffective option.

“My big concern about this is the possession,” Mills said. “Lots of things are illegal to possess – methamphetamine, for example, which we’ve done a poor job of controlling in the city. If I buy these fireworks, I’ve violated the letter of the ordinance, is that right?”

Hobbs City Attorney Efren Cortez countered, in most cases, intent would take precedence when it came to prosecuting violators of the fireworks ordinance. Also under New Mexico statute, an officer would have to have a “reasonable suspicion” someone was doing something wrong to even pull them over in the first place.

“Bringing them alone or traveling from a fireworks stand doesn’t give an officer reasonable suspicion,” Cortez said. “There’s no reason for a traffic stop at that point. There are some safeguards.”

District 5 Commissioner Dwayne Penick agreed the current ordinance needs to be updated or better enforced. Penick said he gets “personally frustrated” over the amount of fireworks being shot off in his neighborhood. But, he said, he can’t govern based on his personal feelings.

“I’m a big believer in our freedoms in the United States,” Penick said. “I’m uncomfortable writing (an ordinance) that takes away freedoms.”

The commission took no action on the ordinance Monday. Cobb said Tuesday care must be taken as city staff continue working on the wording of the revisions.

“At least from people I’ve had conversations with, I think there’s an overwhelming need to address the noise that a lack of enforcement has caused,” he said. “I think we’ll work towards a reasonable solution all the commissioners can accept.”

But Mills, while he agrees something needs to be done, believes the city should start from scratch, rather than attempting to fix the existing ordinance.

“This is the single, worst-crafted document I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been with the city and perhaps the single-worst drafted law I’ve seen in 15 years practicing” law,” he told the News-Sun on Tuesday. “I think we could take this opportunity to produce a law that reduces the amount of illegal fireworks popped in the city. I think that’s a worthy cause.

“But the reason we don’ enforce the law from 2001 is it’s legally unenforceable because it’s poorly done, Mills said. “We’re starting with a bad law that’s unen forceable and that’s a bad way to start.”

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