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Herbert's fireworks policy

Published August 25, 2012 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Ken Bullock

Now that Utah's summer fireworks season has passed, it is important to review how government responded to the threat. Gov. Gary Herbert banned fireworks in all unincorporated areas, called on local officials to quickly determine whether restrictions were necessary within cities, and repeatedly called for common sense and caution.

As representatives of local government, we appreciate that the governor recognized that local officials are best suited to determine if local conditions warranted further fireworks restrictions and that the governor collaborated with and trusted local officials to make the appropriate decisions.

The top priorities of Utah's elected officials are to protect the lives, property and pocketbooks of our residents. The governor's actions struck the appropriate policy balance between protecting life and property while honoring the authority of local officials.

Government closest to the people governs best. Our city mayors and councils were and are intimately aware of the needs, risks and desires of individual communities and best positioned to address them.

In some cities, local officials determined that certain areas of the city were covered by dry brush and thus prohibited firework use in those areas. In other cities, local officials encouraged residents to gather in areas that the fire official deemed safe for firework use.

In limited cases, city leaders determined that the mountainous, forested and brush-covered areas of the city warranted an outright firework ban. In all cases, the governor, fire authorities and city leaders worked together closely to find local solutions.

We learned valuable lessons this July. For example, several competing sections of state law address how the state and cities could respond to firework use during hazardous environmental conditions and we at the Utah League of Cities and Towns will work with the governor and the Legislature to iron out the perceived inconsistencies in the law. We also learned anew the importance of rapid and informed communication between residents and policymakers.

During a crisis, two courses of action inevitably lead to unacceptable outcomes: doing nothing and overreacting. Doing nothing was not an option as Utah has been besieged by dry conditions and hundreds of fires in 2012. While some called for a statewide, all-out ban on fireworks, such a policy would have been an overreaction for two reasons. First, it would have trampled on the jurisdictional authority and ability of city leaders to make the best determination. Second, it would have required the exercise of emergency powers and a costly legislative session immediately following the governor's action.

Such a reaction would have only complicated the appropriate response.

Consequently, the governor made the right call. We thank him for his leadership and his willingness to work with city and town leaders. Likewise, local officials tailored solutions for local problems. Finally, Utahns exercised good judgment in fireworks use.

Ken Bullock is executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.