CITY HALL — As it has for each of the past nine years come April 1, the Santa Monica Daily Press took a break from covering the news and published a full edition of fake stories on Thursday, many of them filled with thinly veiled digs at local public figures and absurd takes on local issues.

This year’s April Fools’ edition included a story about gambling boats being allowed into Santa Monica Bay, a man being set on fire by a neighbor after an argument over secondhand smoke and Santa Monica High School’s Viking mascot becoming the target of racism allegations.

It’s all in good fun, though of course it’s a tradition that gets mixed reviews among readers.

Publisher Ross Furukawa said the edition has been a staple of the paper since its first run in 2002, months after the paper was founded.

“It’s our time to have some fun with the town,” Furukawa said. “We’ve certainly had threats of lawsuits and we’ve had some people take it really personally, but every time somebody’s gotten really upset, after about an hour they start to laugh and realize it’s April Fools’ Day. Usually people have just as much fun as we do.”

On Thursday, Editor in Chief Kevin Herrera received a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls about the issue.

Many, including a handful of those lampooned in the fake stories, wanted to say thanks for a good laugh. A few who didn’t get the joke sent in outraged e-mails. And a few others thought the gags were in poor taste. Also, more than a few readers were duped by the gag stories.

“The majority were people who were definitely pleased with our performance and thought that the April Fools’ edition was a laugh riot,” Herrera said.

But why does a newspaper that aims to be Santa Monica’s paper of record transform itself into a humor publication once per year?

Furukawa said the Daily Press aims to cover the issues Santa Monicans care about and “create the conversation in town” 364 days out of the year, “so we’re allowed one day to have some fun.”

While the goal is to put out something that readers enjoy, the tradition has also become a favorite among employees.

“It wasn’t only fun for the readers but a great time was had by all in the editorial department,” Herrera said. “In a way this is our only opportunity to vent as reporters on things that occur in the city.”

And the Daily Press wasn’t alone in going in for pranks April 1.

Google announced to its millions of users on its Web site it was changing its name to Topeka — a reference to the Kansas town’s recent decision to temporarily rename itself “Google” in an attempt to win the Web search company’s contest for a free high-speed Internet system (Santa Monica has also entered the contest).

Even City Hall has its own prankster in residence in Web master Keith Kurtz.

This year, Kurtz marked the occasion by posting a fake announcement on the city’s Web site that said: “As part of a public policy training exercise, the students in Mr. Widget’s government classes at Santa Monica High School will be controlling all city traffic signals from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. today. Please drive defensively.”

“I hope I’m putting stuff up that’s so out there people won’t believe it,” he said.

If you cross the line and actually trick people or make jokes that are offensive, “it stops being funny pretty quickly,” he said. Kurtz has plenty of experience pulling off April Fools’ jokes, having manipulated City Hall’s computers in jest on April 1 since the early 1990s, before the advent of Wed sites as we know them today.

While the “kids directing traffic” gag was online for all to see, on Thursday Kurtz also posted an employees-only prank on City Hall’s intranet. The fake posting notified employees about a renovation to the Fourth Street exit of Interstate 10 that would create a “launch ramp” to get commuters to the Civic Center in record time.

“I’ve always enjoyed April Fools’ Day since before I can remember, and my children loved it, too,” he said.

nickt@www.smdp.com

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