Five nonprofit organizations were selected by the Livingston City Council recently to sell Safe and Sane fireworks within the city limits.
Livingston Youth Football was chosen by the council last week by a 2-1 vote. Four other nonprofits – Livingston Wrestling, Livingston-Delhi Veterans of Foreign Wars, Livingston High School Quarterback Club and St. Jude Knights of Columbus – were selected through a lottery by drawing names from a hat.
Seven organizations applied for the spots, and two alternates were picked – the Fourth of July committee and Carlos Vieira Foundation Inc.
Councilman Jim Soria recused himself from last week’s discussion because he’s a volunteer coach with the youth football group. Councilman David Mendoza also recused himself because of his involvement with Knights of Columbus.
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Earlier this year, Soria pushed at the council level for Livingston Youth Football to receive a booth, but without going through the lottery system, because of the league president’s death. Last week’s meeting was the first time Soria recused himself from council discussions about fireworks booths.
Soria said he previously suggested the youth football group be awarded the booth for two consecutive years without going through the routine lottery in memory of the late league president.
Despite Soria’s recusal from last week’s vote, the nonprofit was awarded a fireworks stand without going through the lottery, as other groups did.
“I just want to say there is no financial interest or gain on my part, but just due to my heavy involvement, I’m going to excuse myself,” Soria said before leaving the council chambers last week.
Even without a monetary factor, a political expert said last month, there was still a possible conflict of interest. As a council member, Soria could have swayed or influenced the vote, said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus.
“There are other types of conflicts of interest besides financial gain, and one of them is influence peddling,” she said.
The City Council previously amended the city’s fireworks ordinance to ax the old method of putting all nonprofits on a rotation schedule. Instead, the council allowed itself to pick two “discretionary” booths and place the rest in a lottery.
Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza agreed with giving Livingston Youth Football the stand as a discretionary pick.
It was a move that didn’t sit well with Livingston Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra, who said placing all nonprofits in a random drawing is the most unbiased and fair method.
“I think we should just let it go to random drawing, because this was what I consider a self-inflicted wound to the council,” Samra said at last week’s meeting. “We’re going to really pick between organization A versus B, when we know that they both do a good job in the community?”
The other council members didn’t agree. The motion to award the group a booth was made by Espinoza and seconded by Councilman Arturo Sicairos. Samra voted against the action.
“I already said in public I was going let Livingston Youth Football have it for two years in memory of a person who passed away, so I’m going to have to stick with that,” Espinoza said during the meeting.
Espinoza and Sicairos did not return multiple calls for comment.
Merced County and Atwater do not place limits on the number of fireworks booths for nonprofits. Merced allows 32 fireworks stands, but doesn’t receive that many applications, officials said.