Livingston's ex-mayor says fireworks cancellation a victim of politics

Current mayor says there just isn't enough money.

June 23, 2010 

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMES Spectators enjoy the firework display at Buhach Colony High School after the annual Atwater Fourth of July celebration on Saturday. July 4th, 2009

MERCED SUN-STAR

LIVINGSTON -- With a recall election around the corner in Livingston, questions have been raised about why the annual fireworks show fizzled out this year.

The City Council claims there's not enough funding for the show, but former mayor Gurpal Samra thinks the cancellation is a political move resulting from the recall election scheduled for Aug. 31.

Veteran political foes launched verbal M-80s in a blame-game display that's become standard fare in Livingston.

The popular event was the biggest fireworks display in the Central Valley, making it a disappointment when it was called off, Samra said.

"A lot of families relied on the fireworks show to have some fun with their kids," he said. "Not everyone can afford to spend $150 to go buy their own fireworks."

The unpopular move to cancel the show was merely political fallout, Samra said.

"In my view, it's nothing more than retaliation for people who signed the petition against the two councilmembers (Mayor Daniel Varela Sr. and Councilwoman Martha Nateras)," he said.

However, Varela declared the move to cancel the Fourth of July fireworks was in no way political. He argued that Samra is using the situation as a way to attack the City Council.

"His whole purpose since he lost the election has been to embarrass the council, embarrass the city manager," Varela said. "He's got a painted past as far as politics go."

Varela thinks it's more important for the city to focus its efforts on permanent improvements, such as the proposed skateboard park.

"If people are going to make contributions, we'll take a contribution for something that's going to be long-lasting in our community," he said.

Varela pointed out that Livingston cancelling its Fourth of July fireworks show is consistent with other cities that have also cancelled their customary events because of budget issues. These include Merced, Modesto, Turlock and several cities in the Bay Area.

People not on the council, such as Samra, don't understand all the planning and cost that go into a Fourth of July event, Varela said.

"It's like a little child that's clenching his fist and squeezing his eyes because they want something to happen," Varela said. "His intentions are good, but sometimes you just have to let it go."

After the council reported no money had been raised for the show since 2002, Samra approached the City Council during a June 1 meeting with evidence that organizations, including Joseph Gallo Farms, had made donations since then.

"The money was donated," Samra said during the meeting. "I'm not accusing anybody of anything -- it could be an accounting error -- but I just wanted to have the record straight."

After Samra addressed the council about the issue, officials have since found $70,775 in donations made from 2002 through 2009.

Vickie Lewis, assistant city manager and finance director, insisted the mix-up wasn't political and was a mistake on her part.

"It wasn't missing and it wasn't misplaced," Lewis said. "I went up to council and I apologized for the error and I apologized to the community and I apologized to the people who were so generous to give us those funds over the years. It certainly wasn't intentional."

Had the funds been better accounted for, there still wouldn't be enough for a fireworks show, she said.

"It certainly was not political, it wasn't intentional and it wasn't just to stop the fireworks because the money's still not there," Lewis said.

Samra doesn't think the council went out of its way to stop the fireworks.

"I don't believe they were trying to hide the funds at all, but what I do believe with every fiber of my being and my soul is they were trying to justify not having a fireworks show," Samra said.

A lack of contributors wasn't the issue, he said. There were people willing to donate to the show, but nobody from the council was willing to make the effort.

When Samra served as mayor, it was common for City Council members to make phone calls, ask for donations and receive adequate funding, he said. However, the current City Council didn't make any phone calls asking for support of this year's show.

"If they had just made two phone calls, it would have taken them 10 minutes, if that long, and they would have had a lot of money from those donations," Samra said. "But they didn't attempt to do it because they do not want to do it. Not one phone call was made to raise funds."

Joseph Gallo Farms, Foster Farms and others are usually willing to help out with funding, he said.

"We always made efforts to get money for the fireworks," Samra said.

By waiting until the last minute to announce there wouldn't be a fireworks show, the City Council didn't allow time for anybody else to raise funds, he added.

Despite the short notice, Samra and a loosely organized group of people tried to organize and raise money, but were unsuccessful because they couldn't get a nonprofit ID within the time they were given, he said.

The group collected close to $14,000 in commitments, but were a couple thousand short of being able to fund a show, Samra said. The group wouldn't be able to collect the money anyway without the nonprofit status.

People would have been more willing to donate had the council itself taken the initiative, he said.

Samra hopes there will be some new faces in City Hall by this time next year.

"We're hoping we have a different council," he said. "Hopefully, that council, by majority, would be more willing to think about the community."

However, according to Varela, the bottom line is that some people in the community only focus on the negative instead of giving attention to positive projects that are going on. Few people understand how much Fourth of July events cost in terms of police department staffing and public works overtime.

"Nobody really understands how much effort and work and finance go into it," Varela said. "In Livingston, people get used to having everything there and taking it for granted that things cost money, and there's no concern over that."

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.

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