Closed-door meeting with county fire officials reported by residents violated Brown Act, legal experts advise ECM
By Nadin Abbott and Miriam Raftery
March 19, 2013 (Julian)—At a March 14 meeting of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire District Board to discuss the possibility of joining the County Fire Authority and dissolving the community’s volunteer fire district due to financial shortfalls in the emergency medical services side of the ledger, Fire Captain James Stowers made a surprise announcement.
“Last month we reached out in this time of need. We formed a task force including community members,” he said. Then he revealed, “I’m happy to tell you that in one month’s time, we have come up with the funds to eliminate our deficit for this next year.” Stowers added that the donation was confidential and that they are meeting with legal counsel to see how this is to be disbursed. There were cheers from the audience, and a shout of “Amen!”
The Board members, however, did not show smiles or gratitude at the news.
Behind closed doors
Prior to the meeting, multiple community members have stated that the Board had met behind closed doors with County officials regarding a proposal to dissolve the volunteer fire District and hand over control to the County Fire Authority, which relies on Cal Fire for firefighting duties.
“There were several of us, besides myself…basically pushed out the door so they could have their `closed door meeting.’ Their words, not mine,” Lisa Elkins Goodman, an investigative journalist and Julian resident, told ECM. A tape of the public meeting confirms that the Chairman referred to details of a County offer and conversations on details held outside the public’s eye.
The Ralph M. Brown Act prohibits public agencies from holding closed-door meetings except under limited circumstances such as to discuss pending litigation, personnel matters or labor negotiations. Boards are specifically prohibited from holding closed door session to discuss available funds, funding priorities or budget.
ECM contacted County Counsel to confirm that Julian Fire Board is a public agency subject to the Brown Act. “Their meetings should be subject to the Brown Act,” Bill Johnson confirmed in a voice mail message to ECM. Shawna Simonds at the fire board also confirmed that the Board is subject to the Brown Act.
Attorney Maria Severeson, law partner of Mike Aguirre, former San Diego City Attorney, told ECM that “absolutely” it would be a Brown Act violation if the Board (or more than two members) met behind closed doors to discuss the district’s financial problems. “The remedy is to bring action for a Brown Act violation and seek declaratory relief, which would void any action taken,” she advised, adding that a closed-door meeting in violation of the Brown Act “can also be a misdemeanor.”
A second-closed door meeting was held after the public session to discuss pending litigation. The second meeting was lawful. ECM has learned through an e-mail inquiry to the Board that the pending litigation case is Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, Plaintiff, v. Doug Andrews, an individual, and does 1 through 10 inclusive, defendants. The district did not divulge the nature of the suit.
The District’s financial situation
After the earlier closed-door session, County Fire Authority officials presented its plan to the Board and citizens at the start of the public meeting, hearing many concerns from a standing-room-only crowd of residents. No one from the public spoke in favor of dissolving the district.
Herman Reddick with the County Fire Authority indicated that “I’ve been in discussions with Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s office.” He acknowledged that having Julian’s Fire District remain independent could be “a good option for the Community” though future County support seems to hinge on the District giving up its independence.
Ken Miller, Fire Service Coordinator for the County Fire Authority, did the presentation for the County and laid out options for Julian. Miller emphasized that the Board “approached us. We didn’t knock on their door.” He said the Board asked County officials “to see if we could assist the District with some funding issues that they saw coming down the road.”
It was made clear that some of the proposal was very new and this was a change that happened in the last 24 hours. The County’s presentation included news that the County has now agreed to kick in $60,000 for station operations to help cover this year’s costs, as well as $40,000 for dispatch fees. That would mean a surplus this year instead of a deficit when added to the anonymous donation announced later in the meeting.
Despite these financial windfalls, after Stowers’ announcement the Board still did not voice support for keeping the District independent. An audience member immediately asked, “Does this mean the deal with the County is off the table?”
Board President Jack Shelver quickly answered, “Not necessarily; everything is on the table.” There were groans from the audience and another quick question regarding the health of the District from the audience. “Is there more than just the money issues?”
To this Shelver said that new information today, citing the County’s new offer, “changed the options.”
Another audience member pressed the board, “Is there a target amount ot money where you would assure you won’t dissolve the district?”
Shelvers replied, “I can’t give it to you,” adding, “I’m not going to pull the money out of the air.” He clarified that while the ambulance side is running an $85,000 deficit, the firefighting side had a $21,000 projected loss for this year, working out to a total deficit of $65,000 projected – a figure he said he is confident will be reduced next year.
The district does have around $115,000 in reserves, down from $300,000 to $400,000 several years ago.
A man in the audience asked, “If you’ve been running this big deficit for years, why did you not tell the public until just weeks before the deadline (to join the County Fire Authority)?”
Shelvers said a local newspaper had run something but acknowledged that was not enough. “You’re absolutely right. We should have said something sooner,” he admitted.
The District has a contract with the County that expires June 30.
“We’ve had a partnership for years…we pay dispatch, helped to come up with an engine and a water tender, and in the past partnered with Cal-Fire for weed abatement and as part of the defensible space program,” said Miller.
Past contracts, however, allowed the District to remain independent. The new proposal from the County calls for the District to ultimately be dissolved.
Option one: Details of proposal to join County Fire Authority
The County is proposing a new two-year agreement. The Board must decide whether to accept it by May 20, 2013 and agree to join the County Fire Authority. If accepted it would be included in a County Master Plan going to Supervisors in June. The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) process will start before March 1, 2014 and the Districtt will dissolve by July 1, 2015.
The proposal to merge with County Fire Authority includes these provisions:
The County will provide for a Chief level officer, drawn from Cal-Fire. The office would be the Cal Fire station near Julian. This Chief would also be responsible for a larger territory than the existing Julian-Cuyamaca volunteer district must cover, extending out to Ocotillo Wells and Shelter Valley. Career staffing would be provided at each station with two Cal-Fire career personnel. There would also be to stipends for two volunteers or reservists at each stationto reimburse for uniforms and expenses; this is not a salary.
The Board would become an advisory board, but Julian would have a seat on the board of the County Service Area 135 (CSA-135). The County would assist with the LAFCO process. In exchange Julian would enter a two year contract that ultimately dissolves the District (a LAFCO requirement.)
All existing volunteers would be able to apply to join the County Fire Authority, and the two District stations would become part of the CFA. As part of this, however, all volunteers would have to submit to a general physical exam, which clears them for duty, and a background check. One resident voiced fears that “90 percent” of the existing volunteers might fail the test, a figure disputed by County officials.
The County sees these two requirements as critical. The medical exam is a wellness exam, to make sure that firefighters are fit to serve. It includes a treadmill test, and ensures that the firefighter will not become a liability at a scene for his or her buddy due to underlying medical conditions. It is a safety issue. The background check is to make sure that nobody has any contact with the fire service who should not. A background check in one fire district revealed an arsonist , who was terminated, Miller noted.
The ambulance service is a separate item since the County Fire Authority does not provide emergency medical services and the EMS services will be opened up for bidding when the contract expires, regardless of what decisions the Board makes on the CFA proposal. If the District remains independent, it would have the option to bid on the EMS services, though there’s no guarantee that the District would be awarded the contract.
As far as the County is concerned, if the Board decides to join the County Fire Authority, there is no backing down. There was an offer before that allowed the Board a year to fully commit, but “that’s not a viable option anymore,” Shelver stated. “The penalties are too great.” If the board signs an agreement and then backs out, the district would be left entirely on its own—with zero funding from the County, not even the $60,000 for stations or $40,000 for dispatch that it has previously received.
The District might build a new fire station within two years. The County might require that fire services be housed there. But there are no guarantees.
Option Two: Remain an independent district
The other option is to keep the District independent , manned by volunteers as is currently the case. For the next year, the District will continue to get the $60,000 for Station operations and the County will continue to help with the $40,000 dispatch costs.
If the Board decides to back down once committed, these subsidies will be gone. “You’ll be on your own,” Miller warned.
When Board Member Janet Bragdon asked for clarification as to the length of the contract, Miller clarified that “We are looking at a five year agreement.”
Bragdon pressed, “We can remain independent, continue the $60,000 subsidy and you will continue to pay the $40,000 dispatch fee too?”
Miller said that yes, that was the case. He also said that he cannot guarantee anything for ten years. “we can’t guarantee that this offer will stay the same.” He added that the makeup of the County Board of Supervisors is expected to change, alluding to term limits due to take effect as mandated by a voter initiative.
An audience member asked if the $50.00 fee that residents pay is for station maintenance could be used for the ambulance service, which currently is $85,000 in the hole?
Susan Quasarano, from the County answered that the Council needs to look at the language since this is determined by law.
Bragdon said that her phone has been ringing off the hook since citizens are concerned. One of the questions is what happens to the equipment at dissolution? Who owns it?
According to Miller, “All District assets and liabilities transfer to the County.”
The liabilities question is intriguing, since responsibility for any potential litigation against the District could also be transferred to the County.
Several citizens raised concerns over warnings received from fire officials in other districts that joined the County Fire Authority, voicing regrets over the action.
A letter from former Campo Fire Board member, Craig A. Williams, has been posted at the Julian Connection site online. “I resigned from the Campo Fire Board when the County forced them to go with the fire authority,” Williams’ letter stated, adding that his fears of lesser fire protection have been realized. “This month our department will be dark, no firefighters, for at least 20 days….Four years ago when we had our own Chief and hired and trained our own firefighters we never had more than 6 dark days a year.” He cautioned that if the County takes over, medical services could also be cut and Cal Fire could send equipment out of the area. Williams urged residents to raise $50 a year to support and keep their Fire Department.
In the public meeting, Elkins asked Miller about the 20 dark days since Campo went with Cal Fire. Miller admitted to some dark days, but said the number was far less. He also explained that one of the reasons is that the volunteers were moved to the Cal Fire station (where they could still respond) nearby for mentoring and training. There was “no lack of coverage,” though coverage on some days was by lesser-trained personnel.
Chris Cornette posted on the Julian Connection that he was on scene promptly at a fire next door to his residence within minutes, helping the homeowner and another neighbor douse the fire swiftly. He shared with ECM that Cal Fire arrived 15 minutes later, and helped with mop up. He also stated that the US Forest Services Pine Hills Station is unstaffed at night and typically not covered in the winter. "Another reason OUR local fire department is important.”
Elkins also voiced concern over a long response time by Cal-Fire to a recent blaze. “I’m the one that had to give directions to Cal-Fire,” she stated.
ECM asked in the meeting if outsiders coming to fight fires in Julian would affect response since outsiders do not know the terrain.
Miller replied, “We welcome volunteers.” He also said that people like serving in places like Julian. He said that those who are not familiar with the area would undergo driver orientation. This will be the same case with drivers for ambulances, whether they are bid out or still kept by the District. He also said that while he hopes to see jobs given to local firefighters, there was no assurance that this would be done.
Chief Greg Griswold from Cal Fire said that “We’re going to put our most familiar people with Julian on our equipment. We don’t see a big difference.”
An audience member blurted out that volunteers would still need to meet the medical certification. Miller answered that concern by stating that those who do not meet the stringent fire service medical qualifications can still serve as part of an EMS crew or as water tender operators. This question came up repeatedly. Miller also said the County is looking at offering volunteers the ability to work as part of traffic control as well, starting this summer, which frees firefighters at a fire or a car accident.
Heather Rowell, a local ER nurse, has relatives is in the Fire Service. “We’re country people… They’re family, we are being asked to dissolve the family, when you bring outsiders in, forgive me, but they are like step children. It changes the whole fabric of the community.”
Rolls went on to say that at other places the volunteers have not remained in place. She predicted that 90% of the volunteers will fail the physicals. She echoed others’ concerns over dark days at Shelter Valley, Ocotillo Wells and other places. She finished, by stating, “We are breaking the fabric of a community instead of supporting it.”
Miller said that the tests are required for workers comp by the County. He also said that he believed “less than 10%, maybe 6%, fail. Those who fail usually become administration people or water tender operators.”
While he insisted that Ocotillo Wells is not dark, he was vague on Shelter Valley. He said when there are sick days, it is the responsibility of those at the station to call around and try to get coverage from a neighboring district. He admitted that the Flinn Springs station, and three others, were closed this Winter.
ECM asked if a design fee for a new station might be used to fill the budget gap. Shelver said they had a contract for $30,000 while the budget was for $70,000. He did not see it going over $50,000. A knowledgeable source later advised ECM that this sum was for updates, not the entire design, which was much higher. Another board member, Janet Bragdon, clarified that “the mitigation fee can only be used for station building” so stemming the budget gap with those monies is not possible.
Captain Stowers told ECM that he was unaware of large amounts allocated for new station design fees, but that a new station is needed.
Other concerns were the size of area coverage and mutual aid. A key fear voiced by the community was that once the District was dissolved Cal Fire would use the engines wherever they are needed, leaving the District uncovered if a major fire occurs elsewhere.
Chief Griswold try to allay fears by explaining that Julian is in a good area, and assets could be moved from father away if need be. He also said that the District’s Board could determine how far its engines could go. What he failed to point out, however, was that if the District joins the County and dissolves, the board would be disbanded and replaced by an advisory-only board with zero authority.
Miller did caution concerned citizens that if you they help in an emergency, they need to send help to others when they need it through the mutual aid process.
Elkens stated that if there are not seven people stationed at the fire station, “We could lose our insurance and have to leave Julian. This summer we had four fires near our home…what if we only had one truck? We need someone up here all the time.”
Miller said the ISO rating of fire stations for insurance purposes includes number of engines, adequacy of water supplies and number of people on the engine, as well as the homeowner’s distance from a station. He did not address the number of people per station.
Chief Griswold indicated that the Julian station remained open this winter, however some rural stations did have closure including Flinn Springs.
This is a very large concern for residents in Julian. They are, quite frankly, afraid of losing their medical emergency services or having emergency responders come from far away.
Either way, whether they join the County Fire Authority or not, Julian residents may see the quality of emergency medical response drop.
The District has been handling the service for the last ten years, but at this point the District is required to open the bidding, and potentially, privatize the service. This is a County EMS requirement according to Shelver. He did state that the County is “happy” with Julian’s EMS services and seemed hopeful that the District may win the bid (if the District remains independent).
Before June, Requests for Interest (RFI’s) must be issued for all interested providers to submit bids. If nobody shows interest, the District will retain operations of EMS services.
One immediate concern was if a private bidder won the contract, would the company be required to be based in Julian? Shelver said he thinks that “it is extremely unlikely that a contractor will get the contract and base their ambulance in Ramona.” Where they base the ambulance it will be the winning bidder’s choice, but has to be within the area of responsibility.
It was also made extremely clear that the Special assessment cannot be used for the ambulance service.
The District’s losses have come entirely on the emergency medical side; in fact the firefighting side is in the black.
A board member shares insights
During a break mid-meeting, Bragdon told ECM that the reasons for these losses have to do with Medicare and Medi-Cal, which do not pay enough to cover the real cost. She also said that their other problem is the number of uninsured patients. She says that they now have a collection agency trying to get some of those monies back.
Bragdon told ECM the board was not fully informed about the seriousness of the financial problems facing the District. “The whole problem is that financial reports given to us were inaccurate, she said. The reports had mitigation fees for fire stations listed as income, which made the budget appear to balance out when in fact there was a shortfall on the ambulance side of $85,000 last year.
“We asked Dianne Jacobs three or four times for money,” Bragdon added, indicating that the Supervisor had not been responsive.
As for the inaccuracies in the financial reports given to the board, Bragdon said, “At this time we heard no evidence of fraud or anything criminal…but we are not really looking at that. We are spending our time to keep this fire department alive…If everything goes to hell in a hand basket and we have to go with the County, it will only be because we do not have the money.”
The meeting grows contentious
Later in the meeting, paradoxically, the board voted to eliminate charges to uninsured people for medical transport services, since only $4,000 of $17,000 billed was collected in the past year. Initially Shelver argued that it cost more to collect than was brought in, but later testimony indicated that collection costs are paid on a percentage of funds recovered. Audience members objected loudly to eliminating the charges, but the board voted unanimously to do so.
During the meeting, a young man who asked not to be named rose to address the board. “I see the whole community stepping up. These guys in a month raised enough to stem the deficit…What people here would like is for this board to assure that you will represent the community. You’re elected by the community…I would just like some assurances from the board that you’re committed to keeping the Fire District.”
Shelver replied, “We’re committed to having good fire protection.”
“That’s not the question!” the young man fired back.
Ideas for cutting costs and raising funds
A woman asked if a measure could be put on the next ballot to levy a new fee to fund fire services. It would take 64% of eligible voters to pass such a measure—a steep goal to reach, though not impossible given that Julian voters did approve a new fire station not long ago.
Bragdon said a committee has identified areas to cost cut, including selling some surplus vehicles and equipment. “We’re going to cut our budget to the bare bones.”
Board member Ada Tucker reported that a fundraising committee is meeting Tuesdays at 4 p.m. at the high school. “We’ve got a group of people with really good ideas,” she said, though declined to discuss specifics.
Lora Von Bretton, a community member, told ECM that ideas considered include a casino night at multiple tribal reservations, a motorcycle rally, flower sales, raffling off a weekend in Julian, and asking local restaurants to participate in fundraising nights.
Shelver tried to discourage the community from rallying to raise money. “What we just heard this morning…gives us breathing time,” he said. “Maybe we don’t need fundraising.”
But Elkins, who is heading up community fundraising efforts, fired back, “We are going to do fundraising and put some money in your reserves.”
Citizens fired up to save their fire district
The concerns of the community are serious. Many feel that this is big government moving in. That doesn’t sit well in this small mountain town, a designed historic landmark, where people take pride in their independence and self-reliance.
A future board vacancy is on the horizon, since one member has announced plans to move to Arizona at an unspecified date. Shelver indicated any vacancy likely would not be filled before the May deadline to decide on whether or not to join the County Fire Authority and dissolve the District.
Outside, some citizens called for a recall of Board members. Others whispered of potential legal actions. Another e-mailed a link to file a Grand Jury complaint to fellow residents a short time later.
If you want to donate money to help save the department, an account has been set at http://www.SaveJulianFire.com where donations can be accepted.
The next two meetings will be on April 22 at 9:00 a.m. and on May 19, at 7 p.m. before the May 20 deadline for the board to make its final decision on whether work with the community to save the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire District, or vote to dissolve the District and join the County Fire Authority.
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