Tensions Flare in Julian as Popular Fire Battalion Chief Is Put on Leave

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By Ken Stone

An elected member of the Julian fire board says he learned about the new fire chief Monday “through the grapevine” and still hasn’t been formally notified.

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On a day when a Julian volunteer fire captain says he was “escorted” from the fire station (for verbally insulting the outgoing chief) and 24 hours after a popular battalion chief was put on leave — director Brian Kramer was sounding an alarm Wednesday.

“I’m on the fire board and I had had zero correspondence with anybody on this,” Kramer said of Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jeremi Roesler being chosen to lead the volunteer force starting Friday. (But his first day at work is Monday, officials said.)

Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber of Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District. Image via Julian Fire Plugs
“I’ve asked about it and no one’s contacted me. They haven’t given me any information.”

Kramer, a retired custom home builder and founder of the short-lived Julian Film Festival, was elected to the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District board in November 2016.

On Wednesday, he was watching a drama he had a hard time explaining. Popular Julian Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber was placed on administrative leave Tuesday.

Kramer said it’s the board’s responsibility to hire and fire the paid fire chief.

“We had it on our board (agenda) last time to hire a new chief,” he said. “And we were discussing it, and Jack Shelver the president kept saying: ‘We don’t need to do this. We can put it off. We don’t have to look for a chief right now.'”
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On Wednesday, Shelver said in a phone interview that Roesler was provided by Cal Fire as stipulated in the interim service agreement. And county spokeswoman Alex Bell said via email: “The district board would make the decision on whether or not to replace Chief Marinelli permanently, but in the short-term, the JCFPD has requested the Fire Authority provide an interim fire chief.”

Bell said Roesler would report to the district board.

“The Fire Authority/Cal Fire personnel are contracted to work alongside Julian reserves and volunteers at no cost to the district or community,” she said.

The current chief — Rick Marinelli — was spending his last day Wednesday avoiding questions. He wouldn’t respond to requests for comment on the incidents.

At lunchtime Wednesday, Marinelli was being saluted at a retirement party at Wynola Pizza, west of Julian.

Kramer said Cal Fire members and other Julian board members were present.

“I never even heard about it,” Kramer said. “But the department’s paying for it, as far as I know.”

He said Marinelli and Marcia “Missy” Spahr, the district’s paid secretary, were served deposition subpoenas at the pizza house. Shelver, 82, confirmed this, but said he didn’t see the service being made.

Reached by phone, Spahr told Times of San Diego: “We’re in the middle of a retirement thing, and for you to call here during this time is totally inappropriate.”

Asked how many people were at the party, she said: “I’m not telling you anything” and hung up.

Van Bibber, in a telephone interview from San Marcos (where he was renewing a commercial truck driving license at the DMV), said Marinelli told him about 11:30 Tuesday morning that he was being placed on administrative leave for issues involving a worker’s compensation claim he had with the Carlsbad Fire Department years ago.

Shelver, the board president, said the board learned of the worker’s compensation claim only weeks ago and was advised by district lawyers to place Van Bibber on leave in case his injury proved to be a “liability” issue for the district.

Van Bibber, 62, said he refused Marinelli’s order to turn in his firefighter gear. He said his attorney was preparing paperwork over the action.

“This is just to screw with us,” he said of the volunteers. “That’s all it is. We have no supervision right now.”

Wednesday morning, an angry volunteer fire captain — David Southcott — went to Marinelli’s office in the fire station to berate his retiring boss, saying he “had no integrity” and reportedly calling him names as well.

“He’s just a little weasel,” Southcott said. “It was my day to drive the truck. And he said get off the property right now or he was going to call the sheriff. … I said they can’t arrest me for anything ‘because I haven’t touched you.'”

Southcott said a deputy, Ken Weber, “escorted me off the property. So we’re down a truck driver today. There’s nobody to drive the fire truck because (Marinelli) can’t drive nothin’.”

Weber was “apologizing for having to escort me off, but I told him it’s his job.”

On Thursday, Southcott said he was put on leave as a step toward his firing.

Sheriff’s Lt. Greg Rylaarsdam said Southcott was neither arrested nor detained.

Southcott — a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the fire district — alleged that Marinelli “ran home and got a gun because he thought I was going to come back or something like that. But he ain’t worth it. He’s just a little weasel.”

The 17-year Julian firefighter said: “I’m not done yet. I’m not going to walk away.”

Rylaarsdam said the Julian sheriff’s station has been asked to provide security for an announced protest at 8 a.m. Friday at the Fire Station, 3407 Highway 79. He said he was calling in extra units that day, a “purely precautionary” move.

“We’re working to ensure that if a protest occurs that the protesters are allowed their First Amendment rights,” he said. “Our stance is going to be that we want people to be out there protesting if they want to protest. But we’re not going to allow them to impact operations.”

Updated at 4:10 p.m. May 31, 2018

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