Julian volunteers agree to daily inspections by county
Volunteer firefighters protesting the closing of the last volunteer fire department in the county have locked themselves inside the station for the last three weeks
J. Harry Jones
The San Diego Union-Tribune
JULIAN, Calif. — Julian’s volunteer firefighters, who locked themselves inside their fire station three weeks ago to protest the county’s takeover, can remain there for at least 30 days.
But county fire officials must be allowed to conduct daily inspections to make sure the station and the equipment inside have not been damaged or removed.
The agreement reached between the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District and the county came at the conclusion of a San Diego Superior Court hearing Thursday during which a judge was being asked by the county to issue a restraining order that would have meant the eviction of the firefighters.
Instead, Judge Randa Trapp suggested the parties try to work out a compromise, which they did.
Meanwhile, San Diego County Fire Authority firefighters continue to respond to all emergency calls from two Cal Fire stations in the 87-square-mile area in the Julian/Cuyamaca area. The volunteers can no longer respond to or receive dispatch calls.
The peculiar situation arises out of a hearing held April 8 when the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) unanimously voted to dissolve the district, the last volunteer fire department in the county. The decision followed the certification of a special election held in March in which 54 percent of voters in the fire district opted to go with the county and to eliminate the volunteer department.
But the LAFCO decision did not resolve the takeover, which has been fiercely resisted by the volunteers and their supporters.
Three days before the LAFCO vote, Judge Trapp issued a ruling in a year-old case declaring that a vote to seek dissolution by the fire district board in early 2018 was invalid because they had violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law. The board sought dissolution because of the district’s ongoing financial problems.
Cory Briggs, the attorney for the volunteers, filed a lawsuit hours after LAFCO voted, arguing that because the initial act of the volunteer directors was illegal, everything that followed should be nullified, including the special election and LAFCO vote.
The county countered that Trapp’s decision was obtained by fraud. They say Briggs was hired by the district’s new board of directors, which now strongly opposes dissolution, and colluded with opposing counsel to mislead the judge into rendering the decision.
They call the legal maneuver “self-cannibalism” in one court filing because Briggs allegedly acted in a way to intentionally lose the case. The county maintains the new board of directors is ignoring its duty to abide by the will of the people who voted for county control.
Friday morning, the issue will be back before Trapp as the county and LAFCO ask to become official “intervenors” in the 2018 Brown Act case. They argue that the county has a very clear interest in the outcome of that case and should be allowed to present evidence that no Brown Act violations occurred. Even if the judge eventually upholds her earlier ruling, the county argues, that still doesn’t mean that LAFCO actions should be nullified because everything was done according to the book.
Late Thursday afternoon, Trapp released a tentative ruling granting intervention status to the county and LAFCO. If that tentative decision is finalized Friday, the next step for the county will be to ask the judge to set aside her ruling and re-litigate the case.
The six-year-long discussion to decide which agency (JCFPD or SDCFA) should provide structural fire protection and emergency medical assistance has been long and complicated. While I can not change the depth and complexity of this issue, I am committed to making sure the facts are explained to you in the simplest way possible despite the surprising level of difficulty this commitment is. Open public meeting violations committed by the previous JCFPD board in 2018 resulted in the Julian Volunteer Fire Company Association filing a lawsuit (a year ago) which asked the district to correct these Brown Act violations. Although notified of the violations the board at the time chose not to take action which has led to the legal limbo we are in today.Posted by Director Eva Hatch on Saturday, April 20, 2019
The standoff began April 8 after the LAFCO vote. The county sent a transition team that afternoon to the volunteer station off State Route 79 to conduct an inventory in preparation for county firefighters moving in. The transition team was denied entry by the volunteers, and the impasse continues today.
Meanwhile, according to court filings, the county was concerned that items might be stolen or vandalized. In a declaration, Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham said that one district employee had threatened to pour concrete down the station’s toilets making the station unusable should the county try to move in. Briggs countered that such information was based on hearsay and denied by those who were accused of making various statements.
The county maintains the station and all the district’s assets belong to them, but acknowledge the issue remains to be litigated. Their request for the restraining order included the removal of the firefighters from the station, but did not seek immediate county control. Instead, they were asking that all equipment be stored in the station, which would then be secured until all legal matters were resolved.
Under the agreement reached Thursday, those currently in the station will allow up to three unarmed individuals from the Fire Authority access every day to inspect the property and equipment. All reports produced out of the inspections will be shared with Briggs and his clients.
Both sides also agreed to provide all information they have pertaining to the bank accounts the district had up to the moment of dissolution.
It was revealed during an earlier court hearing that on April 8, $375,000 of the district’s money was transferred into a trust account opened by Briggs. Earlier this month, Trapp ordered the money be kept safe and untouched. Part of the agreement is for money from that account to be spent paying off outstanding bills the district has received and to give back pay to the few paid employees of the district.
Under the agreement, the district will also provide an inventory of property that was removed by volunteers from a second, unused volunteer station in the Cuyamaca area, prior to April 8.
The agreement and inspections will take place for at least 30 days and could be extended longer until all legal issues are resolved.
Judge Trapp asked if both sides were also agreeable to “toning down the rhetoric.”
Senior Deputy County Counsel Joshua Heinlein said yes. Briggs also agreed, but cautioned that he can’t control supporters of the volunteers who aren’t his clients.
Briggs did say that the district board will ask supporters to moderate their comments on social media and elsewhere, comments that often accuse the county of various wrongs, sometimes in quite personal ways.
“I expect everybody to be professional, courteous and mindful of the fact that the court is monitoring this matter,” Trapp said. “Let’s just let the judicial process work.”
©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune