The city's decision to fight the lawsuits over fireworks at La Jolla Cove has officially backfired. On Tuesday, June 17, city councilmembers were asked to approve doling out $250,000 to the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation for costs associated with the four-year-long legal battle in exchange for calling an end to the four lawsuits.
The lawsuits, filed in 2010, alleged that the city failed to address environmental impacts of fireworks at La Jolla Cove. In addition, the suits claimed that no permits were ever obtained and it was yet another instance of the city failing to follow California's Environmental Quality Act.
The lawsuits themselves didn’t threaten a planned Fourth of July fireworks display in La Jolla this year, says the website for the nonprofit La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation, the group in charge of raising money. According to their message, the organization "raised sufficient funding for the 2014 show; however, the La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation regrets to inform the community that this year's 2014 Fourth of July event has been unable to retain a fireworks company at this late juncture.
“The 2014 Fourth of July Fireworks at La Jolla Cove will need to be cancelled because of the lack of any available licensed fireworks companies to perform the show. The litigation by activists had unfortunately significantly delayed the necessary 2014 funding to the point where all available fireworks companies have become committed to other events. The City of San Diego has been wonderfully supportive in continuing the La Jolla event and has incurred substantial expense in settling the four years of litigation by environmental activists."
"Substantial expense" is correct. In fact, the $250,000 settlement is just a small portion of the city’s bill for fighting these suits. Throughout the four-year-long legal battle, judges ruled against the city in three of the cases already decided on (those three are currently under appeal). Yet, despite the rulings, in 2012 the city — with the approval of the city council and city attorney — spent $157,984 to hire outside legal counsel, as first reported by the Reader.
At the time, city attorney Jan Goldsmith defended his decision to ask for outside help. “There is a role for outside private law firms assisting the City in cases where it is impossible or impracticable for the City Attorney’s Office to act as the City’s lawyers. These are situations involving conflicts of interests or special areas of practice.”
To some, the case is about more than the environmental hazards of fireworks: it reveals how guidelines as laid out by the California Environmental Quality Act still fail to be implemented.
"What people may not understand is the way [the California Environmental Quality Act] works is to provide a transparent process for projects that impact the environment," says attorney Bryan Pease, who specializes in CEQA litigation.
"The law does not mandate a result. So as long as the decision-makers have identified all the environmental impacts so the public is aware, they can still vote to approve a project that may negatively affect the environment. The point is just to have transparency in the process so people are aware of what's really going on.
“Nobody is saying the city can't have fireworks. The point of the litigation was to require them to comply with the CEQA process so that people can see the impact of the fireworks, which includes chemicals and debris falling into La Jolla Cove, as well as noise and air pollution. Once those impacts are identified and quantified, the decision-making body can still go ahead and vote for the project. They just can't vote for it without conducting a review to allow the public to know what the decision-makers are voting for exactly."