Some cities are getting a better handle on illegal fireworks through the increased use of administrative citations rather than criminal charges.

Since the state passed SB 839 in 2007 with a streamlined model ordinance for local municipalities, dozens of cities have instituted an administrative citation system to stanch illegal rockets’ red glare.

One was Garden Grove.

“The illegal use was getting out of control,” said Garden Grove City Manager Matt Fertal. “We felt we needed drastic measures to do everything to curtail that.”

The Orange County city in 2007 passed a law authorizing administrative citations with fines of up to $1,000. Since then, Garden Grove has seen the number of citations steadily decline: from 150 in 2007, 67 in 2008, 26 in 2009 to 24 this year.

“Over the last three years, with the media campaign and stepped up enforcement, we’ve seen a significant drop, year after year, in the cites that have been issued,” said Lt. Travis Whitman, public information officer for the Garden Grove police. “Of course, there are other factors like the economy. It could be that people don’t have money to spend on fireworks.”

Administrative citations mean more efficient enforcement through a city-hired contractor, Revenue Experts, to collect fines and schedule appeal hearings when needed rather than burdening the criminal courts with cases unlikely to result in imprisonment.

“Administrative citations are more expeditious in the sense that in a criminal case officers have to write a criminal arrest report,” said Whitman. “With an administrative citation, it takes about as long as a traffic ticket … Because it is a quicker process, we’re essentially moving our resources around better. Officers can clear calls quicker and move on to other preventive or enforcement duties.”

“We’re assuming we’re on the right track because it’s all about keeping people safe and people having fun on the holiday,” said Whitman.

Mindful of the effectiveness of administration citations for illegal fireworks, Garden Grove earlier this year began using them to enforce an ordinance for the possession of graffiti instruments.

Graffiti costs the city about a half-million dollars a year for police and cleanup costs, said Fertal. Officials are studying other areas of city permitting and enforcement that might benefit from an administrative citation tactic.

In Salinas, the City Council last year passed an ordinance authorizing the sale of state-certified “safe and sane” fireworks with fines of up to $1,250 for illegal uses.

“I definitely think it’s a good tool,” said Lalo Villegas, public information officer for the Salinas police. For the holiday this year, the police issued no administrative citations and firefighters issued four.

During the holiday, firefighters in the Monterey County city cruised in fire trucks looking for violations and that was a deterrent, Villegas said.

There was benefit from a good public education campaign as well, said Interim Deputy Fire Chief Brett Loomis.

“We’re working to change the culture,” said Loomis. “Next year we’ll be looking again at what worked this year and what didn’t and adjusting our public outreach.”

Overall, officials felt there was an improvement this year, but it may have been lost to public perception because of one high-profile blaze. Under investigation as possibly caused by fireworks, the fire touched off a half-million dollars of damage to the home of a local business owner and spread to shake roofs of three other houses in the neighborhood, causing minor to moderate damage to them.

“Any time we lose a house to a fire, it’s tragic,” said Loomis. “Then you have a house lost to a fire owned by an icon of the community, a gentleman whose company puts hundred of thousands of dollars back into the community. It brings a heightened consciousness.”

The state’s 2007 law, SB 839, authorized cities to use administrative citations for possession of illegal fireworks of up to 25 pounds. This simplified enforcement compared to an old standard that mandated the separation of fireworks packages and calculation of the weight of materials of “pyrotechnic composition,” said Tony Guevara, a senior state deputy fire marshal.

The use of local administration citations is a potential revenue boon to cities that can retain illegal fireworks fines. When fines result from prosecution of criminal fireworks charges, that revenue is split among local municipalities and the state Fire Marshal’s Office, which bears the cost of – among other items – safe disposal of illegal fireworks.

That’s a big expense.

It was about 50,000 pounds in 2007, dwindling to under 40,000 pounds in 2009, said Guevara, and an expected greater decline in 2010. That decline might have something to do with enforcement changes and something to do with the recession and residents having less disposable income to dispose of in explosions.

The Fire Marshal’s Office also certifies products that meet its standards as “safe and sane” fireworks for cities that have laws allowing the sale of such certified incendiaries.

Lance Howland can be reached at