Dispute between county and defunct Calif. FD headed to legal limbo

Members of the volunteer department continue to sit in their three-year-old fire station off state Route 79 to make sure the county doesn’t try to swoop in and seize the station and the equipment inside


Harry Jones
The San Diego Union-Tribune

JULIAN, Calif. — It appears the dispute between the County of San Diego and the Julian volunteer fire department will remain in legal limbo for some time.

As of now, County Fire Authority firefighters will continue to respond to all calls for emergency services in the 87-square-mile district from two Cal Fire stations in the Julian/Cuyamaca area.

As of now, County Fire Authority firefighters will continue to respond to all calls for emergency services in the 87-square-mile district from two Cal Fire stations in the Julian/Cuyamaca area. (Photo/Julian Fire Department)
As of now, County Fire Authority firefighters will continue to respond to all calls for emergency services in the 87-square-mile district from two Cal Fire stations in the Julian/Cuyamaca area. (Photo/Julian Fire Department)

The volunteers will not be allowed to respond to calls.

Tuesday morning, San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp agreed to oversee three separate legal cases involving the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, which was dissolved last week following years of turmoil and a special election in which 54 percent of the area’s residents voted for the county to assume control.

It was Judge Trapp who on April 5 ruled that, in early 2018, the board of directors of the volunteer fire district violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting laws, by acting in secret to seek the dissolution of the volunteer department.

As a result of that ruling, attorney Cory Briggs, who represents the new directors of the district who are opposed to the county takeover, argues that everything that followed that 2018 decision, including last month’s special elections results, should be nullified.

However, lawyers for the county and the Local Agency Formation Commission (which oversees special districts and voted unanimously to disband the volunteer district last week) now hope to have Trapp’s judgment set aside.

In court filings, the county and LAFCO argue that Briggs and attorney Craig Sherman, who were on opposite sides of the 2018 Brown Act suit with Sherman representing a volunteer association and Briggs the former fire district board, colluded and committed an act of fraud against the court by orchestrating the judgment to benefit the new leadership of the volunteer district, which wanted to lose the case.

The county and LAFCO are now asking to become “intervenors” in the case because they have a direct interest in its outcome. Trapp set a hearing for April 26 to consider the intervention request.

Trapp did agree to let county and LAFCO lawyers file a motion for a new trial because the law requires such a motion be filed within 15 days of a judgment being rendered.

Only after the April 26 hearing, assuming the judge grants the county and LAFCO’s intervention request, will the motion for a new trial be considered.

Meanwhile, a request by Briggs for a temporary restraining order barring the county from taking possession of the department, its equipment, fire station and assets, has been taken off calendar.

The district’s assets also were briefly discussed during the 12-minute hearing Tuesday.

Senior Deputy County Counsel Joshua Heinlein told the judge: “The county just became aware that on April 8 somebody on behalf of the district transferred approximately $347,000 out of the district’s bank account,” he said. “We’re not sure where that money went. Assuming the dissolution was proper and went forward, that $347,000 belongs to the county.”

Briggs told the judge the money is sitting in a trust account.

Trapp told Briggs the money should remain in the account, untouched, until further court proceedings can address that situation.

Everything remains status quo in Julian. Some of the members of the volunteer department continue to sit in their three-year-old fire station off state Route 79 to make sure the county doesn’t try to swoop in and seize the station and the equipment inside. The county had hired private security guards to keep an eye on the station to make sure nothing happened to the equipment or the station, but ended that arrangement late last week.

The county has indicated it won’t move on any of the district’s assets until the matter has been decided in the courts. Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham reiterated that in an interview following Tuesday’s hearing.

“We’re in the court system now,” he said. “The county will not take any actions to seize any property. We want to de-escalate the situation. We’re confident in the court process and we just need to let this thing play out in the courts.”

The Julian News weighs in on the situation in this week’s edition with a front-page story headlined: “Volunteers Throw Legal Hail Mary to Void Election.”

Owner and Publisher Michael Hart asks how can an election be voided? “How is it people who have lost three votes to maintain the JCFPD can still be fighting? Why are we as a community so divided?”

The three elections he refers to are 1) A citizen initiative measure on the November 2014 ballot that attempted to raise the district’s benefit fee that received the support of only 45 percent of the voters; 2) Another attempt to raise the benefit tax last November that received only 46 percent support: 3) The special LAFCO election that was certified earlier this month in which voters chose the county by a 54 percent-46 percent margin.

“The simple answer is passion, on both sides,” Hart writes. “The supporters of the volunteers believe in their cause, they don’t trust the County government. The proponents of dissolution don’t see the volunteer district as financially viable moving forward and despite recent recruiting they remember the past few years when coverage was substandard and recruiting was nonexistent (except a large banner at the Post Office.)”

Briggs on Tuesday refused comment following the hearing.

Sherman strongly denied the fraud allegations in court filings last week and Tuesday said the county has yet to show any evidence proving the old board of directors of the district didn’t violate the Brown Act.

On Tuesday, Mecham, who is mentioned often in court papers alleging that he worked with former district board members as part of a plot to take over the department, said he “absolutely” knows of no Brown Act violations. “I have great clarity on that,” he said.

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©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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