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Proposed fire pit ordinance unneeded

Last week, members of the Medford City Council were asked to approve a solution in search of a problem — or at least a problem that has not appeared on the agenda of any recent public meetings in the city.

As with so many issues in recent years, proposed changes to the city’s rules governing open burning and backyard fire pits came not from the men and women elected to lead the city, but instead through city employees acting on their own initiative to develop new rules for city residents.

The proposed changes were then presented to the city council committee of the whole meeting for an expected rubber stamp. Fortunately for city residents, members of the city council still do their homework before coming to meetings.

Council members raised legitimate questions about the need for the ordinance change and if the proposed rules made sense from a community and enforcement standard. The primary justification for the ordinance is that unless government grants permission for something to happen that it is automatically not allowed. This peculiar notion is at the heart of Mayor Mike Wellner’s comments that the many fire pits in backyards throughout the city are inherently in violation since they have not been specifically approved by the city.

This is nonsense.

Freedom exists independent of any action of the government. Governments may restrict individual freedom in instances of public health and safety where they outweigh the rights of the individual. The city’s decades-old existing rules governing open burning in the city limits address health and safety concerns by prohibiting burning of garbage and restricting items that can be burned to clean, dry, unfinished wood.

Some provisions of the proposed ordinance make sense, such as putting a limit on the size of a fire. In that case, the proposal includes a process to issue special event permits for things like the high school to hold its annual homecoming bonfire, which by their nature should be event and site specific.

Other parts of the proposal, such as requiring all campfires to be extinguished by midnight, present a serious overreach. The rule would have put law enforcement in the untenable situation of being campfire monitors in addition to their existing lawn patrol duties. Police officers have enough legitimate crimefighting and peacekeeping duties without the city needing to come up with more things to put on their plates.

The pressing need for the ordinance change centers on the plan to include fire rings as part of a downtown park redevelopment project. Discussion of the benefi ts and potential liabilities of having community fire pits in a downtown park is something the council has yet to take up as a group.

As with any other public facilities, the council also has the right to set rules governing their use independent of general city ordinances. For example, by city rule, all parks are considered closed at 11 p.m. Similar rules could be developed and posted for those wishing to use the proposed park fire rings.

Members of the city council were right to delay action on the proposed campfire ordinance. Rather than simply reacting to what is brought forward by city department heads, council members must be proactive in setting the policy and mission for the city of Medford and its residents.