The Hobbs City Commission on Tuesday moved one step forward in the process of adopting a proposed ordinance to update city fireworks code during a virtual meeting, moved from Monday due to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Originally discussed in November, Commissioners voted unanimously to send the rewritten proposal for publication, the next step in the process. According to New Mexico statute, any ordinance proposal must be published in “a newspaper of general circulation” in the community a minimum of two weeks prior to final consideration.
That gives the public time to read and comment, said Hobbs City Attorney Efren Cortez, responding via email to questions from the News-Sun. State code makes exceptions for an emergency situation where action must be taken to address “an immediate danger to the public health, safety and welfare of the municipality.”
Proposed changes to city code, chapter 8.12, first came to light in October. The proposal went before the city commission on Nov. 16, eliciting concern — and objections — from several commissioners before being sent back to city staff for further revisions.
The proposed ordinance includes the establishment of so-called “safe zones,” areas where people could safely — and legally — use certain classifications of fireworks that are otherwise prohibited by city and state statute. But some were concerned in November of simply possessing otherwise banned fireworks, transporting them from retailers in Texas to their homes or from a residence to the safe zone could expose residents to possible criminal liability, including fines, jail time, or both.
District 2 Commissioner Christopher Mills was one of the strongest opponents, voicing concerns over the wording of the ordinance changes as presented in November.
“My big concern about this is the possession,” Mills was quoted in a Nov. 18 story in the News-Sun. “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?”
The revised proposal presented Tuesday includes a definition of possession taken from the New Mexico Supreme Court’s Uniform Jury Instructions, Cortez said. The latest version of the ordinance also “defines what possession is not,” he said.
“We sought to clear up any ambiguity in the term ‘possession’ in this ordinance,” Cortez said, noting specific language that would allow otherwise-banned fireworks to be taken to the safe zone to be fired.
The revised proposal also included a handful of minor wording changes, such as replacing the word “shall” with the word “may” when codifying the city’s establishment of the safe zones. That change takes into account possible requests from the governor’s office, state fire marshal or U.S. Forest Service in instances when drought conditions lead to increase fire danger, Hobbs Fire Marshal Shawn Williams said.
“And we added a purpose statement to the beginning of the ordinance proposal,” Williams said. “It expresses our purpose to protect the life and property of the citizens of the community.”
No decisions have been made on where the safe zones might be located, Williams told the News-Sun on Wednesday. Some locations have been discussed, but he said he didn’t want to disclose where until and unless the ordinance was approved.
Speaking in general terms, Williams said a variety of factors would have to go into selecting a location for the safe zones.
“There’s no good place for fireworks from our standpoint,” Williams said. “But we’d have to look at vegetation, safety, topography, access, exits — a whole (variety) of factors to put in place for that kind of thing.”
Mills, the lead opponent of the ordinance changes as initially presented in November, said Wednesday the latest version addresses his concerns “to a large extent.”
“I think the ordinance is improved quite a bit from the original draft,” he said. “It’s still not perfect, but it’s greatly improved. A large part of what I was concerned about is taken care of with these changes.”
Mills said he still worries about potential liability issues if someone is injured in a safe zone, or if a fire destroys property.
“Any time you invite the public to use a facility, a certain amount of responsibility goes with that,” Mills said. “Does this open the city to liability? Who’s responsible for injuries and accidents?”
He’s also concerned about the logistics of enforcing the ordinance with limited resources, as well as making sure the ordinance is administered fairly across the city. Mills is worried less affluent areas might more likely to be targeted for enforcement, whether intentionally or not.
The proposed ordinance specifies violators using prohibited fireworks within the city limits, but outside a safe zone, “shall be given the opportunity to surrender their illegal fireworks for destruction in lieu of a citation.”
Anyone convicted of violating the fireworks ordinance, if it’s approved, would face a maximum fine of $500, no more than 90 days imprisonment, or both, the ordinance states. It further places the responsibility for enforcement on the Hobbs Fire Department, assisted by the Hobbs Police Department.
“When you have thousands of people popping fireworks across the city, we have a limited ability to enforce” the ordinance, Mills said. “It becomes virtually impossible to not target certain areas of town, certain individuals.
“I think the problem we’re addressing with this ordinance is much more complex and execution of this ordinance will be difficult to apply fairly and evenly across the city. Fireworks is a challenging issue — no one thing will be a magical arrow in our quiver to address the issue.”