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Council considers canceling fireworks, will create new July 4 program

The fate of San Ramon's immensely popular Fourth of July fireworks show could be determined in two weeks, and whatever the decision turns out to be, it appears to be shaping up to be a complicated one.

The San Ramon City Council spent nearly two hours Tuesday evening discussing the pros and cons of putting on the aerial fireworks display this summer as part of the city's Independence Day celebration at Central Park. The fireworks display has been an annual tradition since 1985, beginning just two years after the city's incorporation. During the last quarter of a century, the aerial fireworks has grown from a localized celebration to one attracting in upwards of 30,000 revelers from not only San Ramon but from around the East Bay.

Its huge popularity through the years has caused concern at City Hall regarding public safety and cost.

At its Tuesday meeting, the council voted unanimously to instruct Karen McNamara, San Ramon's interim parks and community services director, to direct her staff in devising a potential alternative July 4th celebration -- without the fireworks. McNamara and her staff will present their proposal at the Feb. 28 council meeting, at which time a decision will be made whether to move forward with a fireworks show this year -- or cancel them.

The cost for San Ramon's July 4 celebration amounted to $175,000 last year, but city staff recommends increasing the budget to $318,000 to accommodate for additional equipment, personnel and contractor costs.

"The issue of safety is related to the size of the event," said Police Chief Scott Holder. "The event causes gridlock. The roads (within proximity of Central Park) are not equipped to handle all of the traffic to take people back to the freeway."

Holder added that the "largest concern" from the police department has to do with the growing size of the crowds, year after year.

Police, public services and parks and community services have nearly all staff on-duty during the 10K morning run and evening fireworks event. The need to provide safety and security in the park, the launch site for the fireworks, parking lots and surrounding areas while simultaneously providing safe traffic control measures and pedestrian access has stretched current city sources to the limit, according to a recent staff analysis.

City officials wanted to gauge input from residents on the matter. More than 600 e-mails were received during a period of several days leading up to Tuesday night's council meeting. Among those e-mails, nearly half -- or 296 e-mails -- were in support of continuing with the fireworks display.

Longtime Councilman Dave Hudson said San Ramon residents have always favored the tradition of its fireworks display, saying that a lot of residents would be disappointed if the fireworks were cancelled.

"Once you yank this display, you're going to hear about it," Hudson said.

San Ramon resident Donna Kerger agreed, saying that while she is concerned about the health and safety of the community, Independence Day festivities -- with fireworks -- is something special for the city.

"The Fourth of July is very emotional for me," Kerger said. "For me to stand up here tonight as the city reconsiders it, is very difficult."

San Ramon is one of the few cities in the Bay Area to hold a July 4 fireworks display. Livermore discontinued its display last year, and Concord officials have decided to scuttle its fireworks show beginning this summer.

Once other cities begin cancelling their fireworks, East Bay residents will be attracted to San Ramon even more, said Councilman Phil O'Loane.

"Now that Concord has bailed, we're now going to go from bringing in 30,000 people to 45,000," he added, stressing that San Ramon's event is not capable of handling that large of a crowd.

Mayor Bill Clarkson also stressed that public safety is an important priority which needs to be addressed.

Hudson said as much as he has seen "the writing on the wall" through the years that the size of the crowds converging on San Ramon continues to grow, he admitted that the aerial fireworks is a crowd-pleaser in the city, and to consider cancelling them will not be an easy decision to make.

"People love their fireworks here in San Ramon," Hudson said, adding that if the fireworks display is cancelled, city leaders should consider legalizing the so-called "safe and sane" fireworks. There are few Bay Area cities which still legalize residential fireworks. In southern Alameda County, for example, Dublin and Newark are the only cities where it is legalized.

"People like these aerial displays," Hudson added, explaining that it would be a good option to consider legalizing fireworks, which could serve as a deterrent to residents celebrating Independence Day with illegal fireworks, such as bottle rockets.

The Feb. 28 City Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the council chambers at City Hall, 2222 Camino Ramon, San Ramon.

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