After the show: Court actions still tangling up fireworks organizers

Fireworks from this year's event in La Jolla. File photo

By Kathy Day

As the final bills straggle in for the July 4th fireworks, the La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation director coordinating the effort says they still face court dates that could determine the program’s fate.

Just last week, they got the report about the post-event cleanup required as a condition of their $1,452 permit from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Deborah Marengo, who has been one of the leaders of the fireworks group since 2009 when George Hauer decided to give up his 24-year role of putting on the show.

A total of 21 pounds of pyrotechnic debris was collected after the show — 13 pounds of which were dry and 8 pounds, wet — she said last week, adding that’s just one matter they’re dealing with.

The group is due in court Aug. 31 to review Judge Linda Quinn’s 90-day stay of her ruling that the city must follow state environmental laws when issuing permits for fireworks shows and other special events. The decision came in a lawsuit filed by environmental lawyer Marco Gonzalez.

He represents the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation in the case against the fireworks organizers and the city, which approved municipal code changes that exempt private sponsors of fireworks shows on city-owned property from having to apply for special permits. The case alleges debris from the airborne explosions harms sea life at the nearby marine sanctuary.

“We have Judge Quinn’s ruling saying we lost the lawsuit, but she granted the stay so we could do the show this year,” Marengo said.

Although plans are in the works to appeal the ruling, and “there may not be a 2012 show if we don’t win,” she added, noting “the cost for conducting an (environmental impact report) is estimated at $120,000. … That will virtually stop every kind of event in public parks if he prevails.”

On top of that, on July 5, the fireworks foundation was served with an appeal asking the state Water Quality Control Board to revoke the regional permits.

Meanwhile, Marengo is tallying the final contributions and expenses — and awaiting some late invoices — for the event that she said would cost about $28,000. She said before the event that she had commitments for donations totaling $27,900. Some are still coming in and if they receive more than was needed, it will stay in the foundation’s account at First Republic Bank.

The foundation’s website identifies the group as “a nonprofit corporation, currently seeking 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Your donation is tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.”

Marengo said they “filed the initial paperwork, but then, with the lawsuit, we were not sure about whether there would even be a show” so they didn’t move forward.

“We’ve had two years of non-stop uncertainty,” she said. “Raising money is one thing; the uncertainty is something else.”

Adam Harris, who with Marengo organized the foundation — which is registered as a California public benefit corporation with the state attorney general’s office — said they just put the filing on hold until they find out what’s next.

At this point, they have no plans to change the website, although he said they will soon list their expenses and income on the site at

Saying “most people didn’t seem to care” about the tax-exempt status, she noted in the case of large donations they have worked with other La Jolla nonprofits to handle those funds. 
In 2010, she had to deal with what she called “kind of a glitch,” although it wasn’t related to tax status, involving $5,000 from the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture’s Organizational Support Program (OSP).

Although the money was allocated, it was determined that the fireworks group was not qualified to receive the funds from the program. The city’s website says the program “administers funding provided by San Diego’s hotel/motel room tax (Transient Occupancy Tax or TOT) to nearly 90 arts and culture organizations for reimbursement of personnel and operating expenses. The OSP program seeks to foster the vitality and stability of San Diego’s prominent and established arts organizations and cultural institutions. This funding also enables arts and culture organizations to promote San Diego as a cultural destination.”

When the issue came up in December 2010, Councilwoman Sherri Lightner’s office worked with the city attorney’s office to figure out a way to revise the funding by adjusting an allocation to the La Jolla Historical Society, Marengo said.

John Bolthouse, the society’s executive director, said the change was “all transparent” and that the society acted as a “pass-through,” cutting a check to the fireworks fund.

Marengo said it took 10 months to get the money, while she was dealing with people that were owed money … “then the lawsuit by Marco Gonzalez (just before the 2010 show) slowed our fundraising.”

When some large donors inquired about tax deductions this year, Marengo said, she worked with the La Jolla Town Council Foundation, a 501(c)(3), to handle their contributions.

Glen Rasmussen, president of that foundation’s board, said that in two cases they received funds for the fireworks group. 
Those donors wrote checks to the LJTC Foundation and the foundation paid fireworks vendors directly after Marengo submitted invoices, he said. “We can’t pay her organization.”

The Town Council foundation served as a similar conduit between the city and the interim La Jolla Business Improvement District advisers before the La Jolla Village Merchants Association took over the role of managing the BID previously held by Promote La Jolla.

Jeff Seigel, a local financial adviser and CPA, noted that donors could seek the deduction after the fact, assuming the fireworks group follows through with obtaining its tax exempt status. For now, though, they should not deduct the funds, he said.

Marengo said anyone with questions about their donations should contact her. She can be reached through the website at