by Crystal Gottfried
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Comal County’s authority to issue an emergency fireworks ban last December that irked local fireworks vendors because of the New Year’s holiday.
At a televised press conference from Commissioner’s Court on Friday, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jan Kennady, Criminal District Attorney Dib Waldrip and Assistant District Attorney Geoff Barr issued statements and answered questions related to Thursday’s ruling by Visiting Judge Mike McCormick, retired chief justice, that Kennady’s ban of fireworks and combustibles last December 30 was completely within the county’s authority.
McCormick ruled in favor of Comal County, and issued a summary judgment against Wayne Wildman, owner of the Mr. W Fireworks chain.
Last December 30, in response to extremely dry and windy weather conditions and in accordance with a drought disaster declaration issued by Governor Rick Perry, Kennady, acting as county judge, declared the ban on the sale and use of fireworks in the county.
Immediately thereafter, Wildman filed suit, alleging that the county did not have the authority to ban fireworks. He tried to obtain a temporary restraining order that would have prevented the ban from being implemented on Jan 1, 2006, however, 274th Judicial District Judge Gary Steel allowed Kennady’s order to stand.
Then, Barr, acting as county counsel, last spring filed a motion seeking dismissal of the case since Wildman had not made any further court filings. This action prompted Wildman’s legal team to file a cross motion for summary judgment on various grounds alleging that the county had no authority to issue the ban.
“This is a major victory for the county and its citizens,” said Barr at the news conference. “This ruling reaffirms for all of us that our leaders have local control to protect our lives and property as we hope they will. We have the confidence that they will do the right thing.”
Barr also said that this ruling had broad implications for other counties that seek to protect their citizens during periods of extremely dry conditions, when wildfires are a problem as was the case last December.
Waldrip praised Kennady’s actions and called her a “maverick” in making such a bold move to ban the use and sale of fireworks at that time.
“It was the collaborative effort of Commissioner Kennady, Emergency Management Coordinator Carol Edgett, Geoff, and County Fire Marshal Lin Manford that helped us to make this move,” he said. “We appreciate the governor’s support because Commissioner’s Court was able to extend that ban for several days after it went into effect.”
According to a news report in Thursday’s Herald-Zeitung, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Counties, Elna Christopher, said that her agency welcomed Thursday’s ruling because it has important ramifications regarding the serious wildfire threat throughout the state.
Christopher said that this issue comes up each summer before the July 4 holiday and will continue to come up in the future during times of drought or fire danger. She hopes that this ruling clarifies the authority of counties to prevent disasters that could be caused by wildfires that occur from fireworks use, and to protect the health, safety and property of their citizens.
The TAC provides services to counties and county officials and lobbies the Legislature on behalf of county governments.
According to Kennady, she had no idea that her order to ban fireworks would become such a “legal firestorm” throughout the state and in the governor’s office and she praised the work of Barr to bring Wildman’s legal action to a decision.
“Geoff did a great job and really deserves the credit for working to protect our citizens and for securing this outcome,” she said.
Fire Marshal Lin Manford originally sought the emergency ban from Kennady and praised her, Barr and Waldrip for standing firm in the face of such strong opposition from Wildman and other local fireworks vendors. He said that this was never an issue about keeping someone from doing business or making a living, but was about saving life and property.
“No one will ever know how much personal property was saved from wildfire because of the ban,” he said.
Kennady graciously accepted the compliments.
“I’ve been in government for 25 years, and this ban had the most support of the citizens than any other action I’ve seen taken,” she said. “We did the right thing.”