By Ken Stone
Twenty minutes into Thursday’s hearing on whether Julian volunteer firefighters should be evicted from the state Route 79 fire station, Judge Randa Trapp addressed lawyers for both sides.
“We’re going to have the parties step outside to see if we can reach some agreement before I make a ruling, OK?” she said.
Fourteen minutes later, they returned with a deal. The volunteers could stay in the station.
Joshua Heinlein, senior deputy county counsel, told the downtown Superior Court judge that up to three Cal Fire staffers would inspect the station daily — with reports to be shared with Cory Briggs, representing the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District.
Both sides, Heinlein said, also would share information on what the district had in its bank accounts at the time of the district’s supposed April 8 dissolution by San Diego LAFCO. An inventory of Cuyamaca Fire Station 57 property brought to Julian Station 56 would be prepared as well.
Also: Julian station occupants must keep a log of people staying there, and about 20 district employees including ambulance crews who have missed their last paychecks will be paid within 15 days.
Briggs added: Inspectors will be unarmed and come at set times – not surprise visits. And inspectors must have the qualifications and certifications to deal with pharmaceuticals.
“What is the duration of this agreement?” Trapp asked.
Briggs: “Until we get the merits [of the cases] resolved.”
Heinlein: “Certainly for the next 30 days, this agreement will remain in place.”
Trapp also asked: “Are both sides agreeable to toning down …”
“The rhetoric,” Heinlein said 6 seconds later, filling in the blank.
Both said yes.
Supporters of the region’s last volunteer fire department in the mountain community have locked themselves inside the fire station the past two weeks in the wake of a voter-approved decision to dissolve the department.
The county Wednesday asked the court for a temporary restraining order to keep both sides out of the station. (But Heinlein on Thursday conceded: “There is no singular event that has happened in the last few weeks to bring this hearing today.”)
County attorneys alleged that members of the Julian district are unlawfully occupying the station and have threatened to vandalize the building, including making threats “to pour cement down the toilets and drains if they lose in court thereby rendering the station uninhabitable.”
Briggs said the vandalism threat claims — attributed to former Julian Fire Chief Mike Van Bibber — are “entirely unfounded.”
“Everything is accounted for,” Briggs told the court. “Everything is working properly. … These are public servants. There’s a legitimate dispute over whether the district still exists. That doesn’t make these people squatters. .. These are firefighters.”
On April 8, election results confirming the transition to the county were certified by an 8-0 vote of the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission. That same day, a county transition team arrived at the Julian fire station but was kept out by around 30 protesters who locked themselves inside the building.
The volunteer firefighters contend the dissolution of the fire agency was brought about illegally, with some of the fire district’s former board members allegedly agreeing to dissolve the department in secret, violating the Brown Act.
The fire district’s board voted to dissolve the department in 2018, but that vote was protested by local citizens, triggering a special mail-in election ending March 19.
The JCFPD, whose new board of directors opposes dissolution, contends the election results are “null and void,” due to the alleged Brown Act violations.
Future court hearings will cover a separate suit regarding whether the Brown Act was violated and what that means for the dissolution of the fire district. On Friday, the county and LAFCO will seek to become “intervenors,” or parties, in the Brown Act case.
But Thursday afternoon, Trapp issued a tentative ruling in that case, allowing the county and San Diego LAFCO to be parties.
“[The] proposed intervenors … did not learn of the court’s ruling until April 8, 2019, when it met to receive the results of a special election and set an effective date for JCFPD’s dissolution and was informed of this court’s ruling,” Trapp wrote. “While they may have been aware of the various lawsuits that have been filed, there is no evidence they had knowledge that their interests were not being represented until April 8, 2019.”
She said LAFCO and the county have shown that “mandatory intervention is proper.”
If she isn’t persuaded to change her mind Friday, Trapp will set a May 3 deadline for the new parties to file their arguments in the Brown Act case.
Meanwhile, Cal Fire personnel are responding to area calls for service. Some Julian residents have complained that county fire crews have gotten lost trying to respond to fire and medical calls in the rural community.
At Thursday’s hearing, Briggs further claimed the property reverts, or transfers, to a Native American land trust, the Kumeyaay Diegueno Land Conservancy, upon the fire district’s dissolution.
Ted Griswold, a San Diego lawyer for the conservancy, watched from the spectator seats.
“The county doesn’t have a right to expel anybody from the real property because if the district doesn’t hold it, then it went to the conservancy. Period,” Griswold told Times of San Diego after the 45-minute hearing. “It was a good idea that the parties … were able to work together.”
But Griswold is worried about a plaque/monument on the property, denoting its origin in the Frances H. Mosler Trust and dedicated to the native American conservancy.
“There have been threats to damage [the monument] by Cal Fire individuals,” he said, including reports that “they’re going to take it out.”
Cal Fire Capt. Isaac Sanchez, an agency spokesman, responded to Griswold’s remarks.
“Although we take accusations like this seriously, Cal Fire/San Diego County Fire have no credible reports of threats to the Mosler Trust plaque on the grounds of [Station] 56,” he said via email.
Sanchez said no timeline yet exists on when inspections will begin, but Cal Fire and the San Diego County Fire Authority “are satisfied with today’s developments and look forward to this case being resolved in the courtroom.”
The issue of whether the land under the station reverts to local Indians also awaits resolution — even though a LAFCO attorney has said it was settled in the county’s favor under state law.
The county hasn’t responded to Griswold’s recent invitations for talks — “and I requested it just now to their legal counsel (Heinlein),” he said.
“I mentioned to him: ‘I’ve been waiting for a call.’ And he said: ‘Another time.'”
— City News Service contributed to this report, updated at 7:45 p.m. April 25, 2019.
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