Home Fire News San Diego volunteer fire department losing battle to stay independent from county

San Diego volunteer fire department losing battle to stay independent from county

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Source: Julian Cuyamaca Volunteer Fire Protection District Facebook

J. Harry Jones
The San Diego Union-Tribune

Supporters of San Diego County’s last volunteer fire department appear to have exhausted all legal options to fend off a takeover of the agency that has protected the popular tourist destination for nearly 40 years.

Rulings in two lawsuits seeking to keep the San Diego County Fire Authority from taking over the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District have gone the county’s way.

On Thursday, San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp set a Nov. 15 hearing date at which a final lawsuit aimed at blocking the voter-approved takeover likely will be dismissed.

“I think everything has been resolved,” Trapp told Senior Deputy County Counsel Joshua Heinlein. “I don’t know what you would argue about.”

The Fire Authority was created a bit more than a decade ago after massive wildfires in the backcountry destroyed thousands of homes in 2003 and 2007. The concept was to create a county fire department that would replace the backcountry volunteer agencies with professional firefighters and upgraded equipment.

All of the volunteer departments, in many cases reluctantly, disbanded and became part of the county operation — all but the Julian-Cuyamaca department, which held out for years, despite financial struggles.

The volunteers and their many supporters said the fire department, which is responsible for an 87-square-mile area in northeast San Diego County, was an essential part of the tight-knit mountain community and that volunteers who lived in the area are better prepared to respond to emergencies because they know the area better than out-of-town professional firefighters.

In early 2018, three of the volunteer district’s five elected board members voted to seek dissolution of the department, citing ongoing financial and staffing problems. It was a very unpopular decision with many in the community, leading to a year-long battle. LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission which oversees fire districts, voted to proceed with the dissolution but enough signatures were gathered of registered district voters to force a special protest mail-in ballot election early this year.

Supporters of the volunteers expressed certainty that the community would vote to retain the volunteer department, but they were wrong. Nearly 56 percent of voters opted to go with the professional county agency.

In early April, the vote was certified and LAFCO unanimously voted to dissolve the department. But just weeks earlier the district had hired attorney Cory Briggs who told the LAFCO board that a judge just a few days earlier had ruled the initial vote by the members of the volunteer board to seek dissolution violated the state’s open meeting law. Therefore, Briggs argued, the public vote never should have taken place and LAFCO’s decision to disband the volunteer department was invalid.

LAFCO voted anyway to dissolve the volunteer department and Briggs filed a lawsuit just hours later. The decision meant that legally the fire station and all of the volunteer district’s equipment were now owned by the county, pending the outcome of the legal proceedings.

But the volunteers were having none of it and barricaded themselves in the fire station where for nearly two months a stand-off of sorts ensued while court proceedings began in earnest. At one point, the volunteers hid one of the department’s fire trucks.

Eventually, Judge Trapp ruled that when she made her initial Brown Act open meeting violation ruling, she had not been presented with all the evidence by Briggs and attorney Craig Sherman.

Upon request from the county and LAFCO, she reopened the open meeting law case and allowed the county to argue its case. On the last day of May, she ordered the volunteers to vacate the building, a decision that was instantly appealed and stayed.

But that same day, the volunteers left the station, even taking their Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District outdoor sign with them.

Two days later, the county, saying the station had been abandoned, came in and changed all the locks. All of the volunteers’ equipment — trucks and other firefighting apparatus — have been locked in the station’s bay for safe-keeping ever since.

The county has assumed all firefighting and medical response duties, responding from two Cal Fire stations in the area while the Julian station remains unused.

Two weeks ago, Trapp made another ruling dismissing the earlier lawsuit that claimed open meeting law violations. She did so on technical grounds, saying the original lawsuit had not been filed in a timely fashion and that several things that should have been done to claim Brown Act violations had not been done in 2018.

The lawsuit that Briggs filed in April, the gist of which contended that the takeover was illegal because of Trapp’s earlier ruling, was gutted by the dismissal of the 2018 case.

Trapp this week set a Nov. 15 hearing to consider the county’s request to dismiss Briggs’ lawsuit altogether and made the comments that have led county authorities to conclude the Fire Authority will win the long-running legal battle.

There are still legal issues that need to be addressed, including a dispute over the land on which the Julian station sits off state Route 79 a couple miles south of town.

That 6.4-acre plot of land where the new fire station was constructed in 2017 had been deeded to the native American Land Conservancy of Indio, Ariz., and later transferred to the Kumeyaay-Diegueno Indian land Trust, which donated the land to the volunteer department for a place to build their new fire station.

The trust is now contending that because the volunteer district has abandoned the building, the property should revert to the land trust’s ownership.

The county has maintained for well over a year, ever since the issue was first raised, that state property law is on its side and that as long as the building is used as a fire station, whether by a volunteer agency or by the county, that the deed will transfer easily.

Heinlein reiterated that position during an interview on Thursday, as did Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham on Friday.

Mecham also said tensions in town seem to have died down in recent months.

“My guys are telling me now that when they go into town people want to buy us coffee and shake our hands,” he said. “Fingers crossed, things are really good and operations are normal. The guys tell me the community is supportive.”

Mecham predicted that after the Nov. 15 hearing the county will gain control over the district at which time all the fire trucks will have to be examined to see if six months of sitting idol has made them unusable. The issue of the deed for the fire station will then be litigated, Mecham said.

A lawyer for the land trust was unavailable for comment. Briggs did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment, nor did members of the current volunteer board who are his clients.

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