READING, Pa. – The Reading City Council is looking for ways to prevent a repeat of last year's illegal firework displays during the weeks surrounding Independence Day.
Council President Jeffrey Waltman said he is passionate about getting Pennsylvania to repeal the state's 2017 law, which made it legal to purchase consumer fireworks.
"This is causing a lot of stress on a lot of people," Waltman said. "Reading was unbearable last year on the Fourth of July; it was like a war zone."
Frank Denbowski, the mayor's chief of staff, explained that state lawmakers have proposed legislation to repeal the 2017 law.
"It was introduced Jan. 13 and is sitting in the Agricultural and Rural Affairs Committee, but there is no vote scheduled to move it out of the committee," Denbowski said. "While there is a lot of support from urban areas, they are finding opposition from representatives of the rural districts in the commonwealth who do not support repealing the law."
Councilwoman Donna Reed asked if there are any other existing laws in the city to help fight the use of fireworks.
"When we look at the calendar, it is unrealistic that anything consequential will happen [at the state level]," Reed said. "What efforts are we taking as a city from a safety standpoint? Can we use the noise ordinance?"
Police Chief Richard Tornielli said the city does have an ordinance that bans the use of the fireworks in the city, which is consistent with the state law, which prohibits setting off fireworks within 150 feet of a building.
"The problem is that you can legally buy those fireworks outside of the city," Tornielli said. "It's really an enforcement issue, and that requires an inordinate number of officers on the street."
Denbowski added that because possession of the fireworks is legal, the police actually have to catch a person in the act of setting off the fireworks.
Council Vice President Lucine Sihelnik said she does have faith that state legislators will eventually do the right thing.
"I wonder if there might be an opportunity through community outreach for a safety campaign," Sihelnik suggested. "A lot of this has to be a precursor, as a public service campaign to educate people that they should not be buying these kinds of fireworks."
Councilwoman Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz agreed that a safety campaign is necessary.
"Part of the problem is that people are unaware that this is illegal," Cepeda-Freytiz said about setting off fireworks in the city. "We should also be planning a designated firework display within a safe environment. We need to be proactive so we can prevent what took place last year."
Councilwoman Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz reminded the council that a public display was done at the Pagoda last year.
"But the impact of those [fireworks] was lost as you didn't even have a need to look up at them," she said. "We need to help people to understand that this is deadly. We need to have a strategic plan in place."
The council directed the administration to come up with spokespeople to begin a public safety campaign.
"The problem is that these people setting these off don't care," Waltman said. "When you tell them it's legal to buy them, they think it is legal to set them off. That's the stupidity of the law."
The entire discussion occurred during the council's committee of the whole meeting, but later, during the regular voting meeting, the council heard from city resident Dominic Raneri, who pleaded with the council and the administration to do something to stop the use of fireworks and other incendiary devices.
"We've got to this point because we have decriminalized crime in the past," Raneri said. "My remedy is to avoid a problem by being proactive vis-à-vis public relations."
Raneri also asked the city to enforce the laws by using technology — specifically, cameras.
"We have an obligation to solve these problems, and failure is not an option," he added. "Last summer, neighbors were afraid to come out on their front porches because of explosions. Please take action to stop it. Use the media and use the law to stop it. We can't be held hostage by these people."
Noise issues at the Pagoda
Also during public comment, the council heard from three residents who complained about the loud music that continues to be played from parked cars at the Pagoda atop Mount Penn.
"I can't believe the city has not resolved this continued annoyance," said Brian Grubb, a resident of North 14th Street. "I guarantee that if the mayor and the councilmembers lived in my area, something would be done."
Waltman said the administration continues to focus on the issue.
"It's unfortunate that these things go on," Waltman said. "If we don't enforce this, things will get worse. This is a priority for all of us."
Goodman-Hinnershitz also said it is important for the city to work on enforcement with Lower Alsace Township, which owns a portion of Skyline Drive where the Pagoda property extends.
Changes to Liggett Avenue
In other business, the council adopted two ordinances for the improvement of Liggett Avenue, where it intersects Wyomissing Boulevard.
The ordinances, which were introduced on March 8, involve the city's vacation of a portion of Liggett Avenue to make way for the realignment of the intersection.
The project is meant to resolve traffic congestion by eliminating where the road splits, taking away the northern lane and designing Liggett Avenue to intersect Wyomissing Boulevard on a 90-degree angle.
A triangular portion of Liggett Avenue will be removed, and the land will be given to the Reading Housing Authority, which will use it for an expansion project that includes the development of a 44-space parking lot.