Update: Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil will hear a request at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday from the Julian fire district and board member Brian Kramer for a temporary restraining order to prevent county takeover of fire services and assets. This court filing alleges “that the potential harm to life and limb caused by JCFPD assets in the wrong hands and the tremendous financial harm that JCFPD taxpayers would suffer if its assets are misused all constitute the type of irreparable injury that qualifies for the provisional relief requested here.”
San Diego County took charge of fire and emergency services in Julian on Monday after LAFCO voted 8-0 to dissolve the last volunteer fire department in the county.
But minutes later, a lawsuit was filed to block the transfer. And separately, a lawyer for an Indian group said the new Julian fire station on Highway 79 can’t be taken without negotiations.
“The only thing I can think of is they’re calling everyone’s bluff and think the [Kumeyaay Diegueno] Land Conservancy doesn’t have the money to fight ’em on it,” said Theodore J. Griswold of Procopio law firm.
Earlier, Leslie Crouch answered the phone at Julian Fire Station 56, saying Cal Fire (which handles fire services for the county) “tried to come in, and we’ve locked the doors. Cal Fire managed to break into our other station [57 at 34560 Engineers Road] — busted a window, I heard — and crawled in with a ladder.”
(County spokeswoman Alex Bell responded: “What you were told about 57 is untrue. The county is also not locked out of 56. We’re waiting on direction from the court.”)
With lawsuits flying and threatened, the fate of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District was in limbo Monday, said Julian fire board member Brian Kramer.
Keene Simonds, executive director of the area’s Local Agency Formation Commission, said that as of 10:40 a.m., “San Diego LAFCO recorded a Certificate of Completion for the reorganization, and as such the [district] has been legally dissolved and all service responsibilities as well as assets and liabilities have been transferred to the County Fire Authority via County Service Area No. 135.”
But Kramer said the county has no right to be on Station 56 property at 3407 state Route 79.
“The court [on Friday] ordered the board to rescind the resolution application to LAFCO,” which sought the district’s dissolution, leading to Measure A and the recent public vote to end the 35-year-old volunteer fire agency.
“And that’s what we did [in a special meeting Saturday]. And it’s been filed with the court. And they’re choosing to ignore all that. So they’re the ones that are [ending up] with the black eye.”
At a tense LAFCO meeting on the third floor of the County Administration Center, attorney Cory Briggs represented the Julian fire district.
“Last Friday, the Superior Court voided the resolution of the district that began this process and all associated actions,” he said. “[It’s] as if it had never been submitted at all.”
Before its 10 a.m. vote to dissolve the district, Briggs declared: “You have zero legal authority to do what you’re proposing to do today.”
Whatley, the LAFCO attorney, told the panel she had “just briefly” reviewed legal documents brandished by Briggs.
“At this point,” Whatley said, “I don’t see any reason for LAFCO to delay. It’s plain that they intend to file some action, and a court can resolve a dispute back and forth.”
Then LAFCO member Dianne Jacob, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, asked county Fire Chief Tony Mecham what would happen if a court issued an injunction or temporary restraining order against the Julian dissolution.
Mecham came to the lectern and said county fire services would stay in place.
The ambulance agreement changed last Friday from the Julian district to the county-contracted Mercy Medical Transportation, Mecham added.
After the board voted to dissolve the district, attorney Briggs left Room 302 immediately — headed for downtown Superior Court.
There he filed suit against San Diego County, San Diego LAFCO and county Registrar of Voters Michael Vu.
The five-page suit wants a judge to nullify actions to dissolve the fire district.
“The Dissolution-Inducing Actions taken by JCFPD’s governing board violated the Ralph M. Brown Act,” says the suit.
“But for the Dissolution-Inducing Actions, there would have been no resolution, ROV would not have conducted a special election, and LAFCO would not have approved the recording of a certification of completion of JCFPD’s dissolution.”
The suit said LAFCO, the county and Vu were aware of a previous Julian fire board’s alleged Brown Act violations — not properly informing the public of plans to consider district dissolution.
Briggs attached Judge Randa Trapp’s order of last Friday, which “rendered null and void” actions by the fire board in 2017 and 2018.
LAFCO’s Simonds wouldn’t comment on the latest lawsuit, saying he would defer to commission counsel Holly Whatley to address the Briggs lawsuit.
Whatley didn’t respond. Neither did Registrar of Voters Vu or Cal Fire Chief Mecham.
Another contested issue is who now owns the Julian Fire Station on state Route 79.
At Monday’s meeting, LAFCO’s Whatley said state law allows the county to take possession of the 2-year-old fire station.
But in a letter dated April 5 to Simonds and the LAFCO board, Griswold said the land deeded to the Julian district from the Frances H. Mosler Trust would revert to the trust.
“Discussions with the trustee, Claudia Powell, and her attorney, K.C. Thompson, indicate that the trustee intends to redeed the property to the Native American Land Conservancy,” said Griswold of San Diego’s Procopio law firm.
Griswold wrote that the Indian groups had no interest in jeopardizing Julian area fire protection, and have “repeatedly offered” to let the county continue to use the land for a fire station.
But he said a conditional use agreement would include compensation for the conservancies.
“All such offers have been ignored,” Griswold wrote. “The property does not belong to the County Fire Authority or Cal Fire and neither may legally take possession of the property or the station.”
Kramer, the Julian fire board member and one of 15 fire district advocates at the LAFCO meeting, complained afterward that LAFCO “just muscled through it. They chose to ignore all the court documents.”
He said Briggs had sent LAFCO the Trapp order ahead of time, and Procopio contacted LAFCO a month ago about the property issue.
“[Procopio] also contacted them yesterday and today,” Kramer said. “They just chose to ignore Procopio.”
In fact, Simonds thanked Griswold for the letter.
Whatley had said of the Indian arguments: “We don’t believe that their claim is valid. But that would be something the county would need to address.”
But Griswold said in a phone interview that the transfer of the Julian fire station land has to go through a legal process, and “we’re moving quickly to do that. We’ve told the county we’re going to do this. They apparently didn’t believe us.”
Has Griswold ever heard of a legal exception that allows the county to take over deeded land?
“Nope,” he said. “I don’t know of any. They haven’t provided any. It’s clear that the county has indicated they have no desire to work with us. We’ll move forward accordingly.”
In his remarks at LAFCO, Briggs said the commission was leaving the Julian community without “lawful fire service.”
“What do you get pushing forward today that you don’t get putting it off a week?” Briggs asked. “Your staff report says you have options today. You could postpone this for a week. So it’s not the case that your hands have been tied.”
Briggs also alleged that sheriff’s deputies tried to throw people out of the Highway 79 fire station an hour before Monday’s meeting.
“And I’m guessing that most if not all of you didn’t know that,” he said. “That means something else is going on here.”
The Sheriff’s Department didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Rather than exposing everybody to a lot of legal liability, I would encourage you to not move forward today,” Briggs told the commission, which includes new member Serge Dedina, mayor of Imperial Beach. “Let’s get the lawyers in a room. Let’s get this all sorted out. Do it professionally. Do it responsibly.”
Updated at 5:10 p.m. April 9, 2019