COUNTY AGREES TO COMPROMISE AFTER FILING FOR COURT ORDER TO FORCE VOLUNTEERS OUT OF JULIAN FIRE STATION

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Despite dissolution put in force by LAFCO and County authorities, volunteers and supporters can stay in station at least 30 days, Judge Trapp rules

By Paul Kruze, Contributing Editor

April 26, 2019 (San Diego) -- The County of San Diego and Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) went into Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp’s courtroom Thursday seeking an order to evict supporters of the dissolved Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District (JCFPD).

Instead, the Judge pushed both sides to hammer out a compromise agreement that  allows former volunteer firefighters and their supporters to remain in station 57 for at least 30 days while the legal issues work their way through the court system. 

Calls will be responded to by the County Fire Authority/Cal Fire and the County will have a right to inspect the station daily, with specifications.

The volunteers and supporters have occupied the building since April 8, after LAFCO voted to dissolve the county’s last volunteer fire district in defiance of a ruling by Judge Trapp (photo, right). Despite a ballot initiative narrowly approved by voters, Trapp found that the County committed serious Brown Act or open government violations early on which nullified the election.

Shortly into Thursday’s hearing on the County’s motion for a temporary restraining order to fully take control of the fire station and evict the volunteers, Judge Trapp suggested a temporary compromise. 

“We’re going to have the parties step outside to see if we can reach some agreement before I make a ruling, OK?” the Judge stated.

At that point, JCFPD attorney Cory Briggs and County attorney Joshua M. Heinlein exited the courtroom of Dept. 70. LAFCO attorney Carmen Brock from the Pasadena law firm of Colantuono, Highsmith, PC, represented the agency at the hearing by telephone.

Some fifteen minutes later, the attorneys returned with a deal  that would allow the volunteers to continue to man the station.

The county had sought a court injunction after the LAFCO vote requiring all persons occupying the Fire Station No. 56 at 3407 Highway 79 in Julian to vacate the property and for all monies held by the district to be turned over to the County. It also wanted all JCFPD property to be relinquished to the County.

In an ex parte application to show cause for a preliminary injunction, attorney Heinlein on behalf of County Counsel Thomas E. Montgomery, wrote, “Such injunctive relief is necessary to preserve the status quo and prevent the loss, destruction, damage, or other interference with all property belonging to District immediately prior to the recording of the Completion Certificate during the pendency of this case.”

Heinlein  claimed that cause existed to grant the application because the County believed that “persons acting or purporting to act on Plaintiffs’ behalf have taken steps to take ownership or possession” of JCFPD property in “contravention of the actions taken by San Diego LAFCO to dissolve district.”

Briggs (photo, left) denounced claims that former MCFPD Battalion Chief Mike Van Bibber had made vandalism threats, calling the threats “unfounded.”

Briggs told the judge, “Everything is accounted for. Everything is working properly. These are public servants. There’s a legitimate dispute whether the district still exists. [But] that doesn’t make these people squatters. These are professional firefighters.”

In court documents, attorneys for the County contended that the volunteers and supporters of the dissolved district had threatened to vandalize the fire station, including “to pour cement down the toilets and drains if they lose in court thereby rendering the station uninhabitable.”

But the County failed to document any such threat. 

Heinlein admitted, “There is no singular event that has happened in the last few weeks to bring this hearing today.”

Julian volunteers have maintained that if anyone has committed vandalism, it's the County Fire Authority run by Cal Fire. They have claimed on social media that Cal Fire broke a window and used a ladder to access a fire station.

CalFire Chief Tony Mecham said in an earlier signed declaration submitted to the court, “I am concerned that if Plaintiffs continue in possession of the former JCFPD equipment and other assets, that equipment will be lost, stolen, dissipated, or otherwise harmed.”

Heinlein (photo, right) said the agreement hatched by himself, Briggs, and Brock would have up to three unarmed CalFire staffers inspect the station on a daily basis at set times. Reports of the visitations would be shared with Briggs, who made the stipulation that the inspectors not have weapons in their possession while inside of the fire station.

The occupants of Fire Station No. 56 would be required to keep a log of all people staying in the building.

The volunteers of the legally dissolved district will provide an inventory of any equipment removed from Fire Station No. 56, which is in actual direct control of the County, and moved to Fire Station No. 57.

They also agreed that they would share financial accounting information reflecting the point in time when LAFCO dissolved the JCFPD. Briggs is holding some $375,000 in a client trust account.

Unlike volunteer firefighters, the JCFPD’s ambulance crews and some other employees were paid – but they have gone without paychecks in recent days after the County froze the District’s assets. The court ordered that these workers will receive their final paychecks within the next 15 days. 

Near the end of the hearing, Judge Trapp asked the attorneys, “What is the duration of this agreement?” Briggs replied, “Until we get the merits of the cases resolved,” to which Heinlein replied, “Certainly for the next 30 days, the agreement will remain in place.”

Trapp then added to the considerably more relaxed repartee. “Are both sides agreeable to toning down—"

“The rhetoric…” Heinlein said, filling in the missing part of Trapp’s question.

Both attorneys responded, “yes.”

Key hearing Friday

While the hearing ended on a conciliatory tone, the court hearings in the case are far from over.

On Friday, the county will argue in front of Trapp seeking to overturn the judge’s earlier decision that the former JCFPD board violated state law, specifically, the Ralph M. Brown open government act, including backdoor communications which could potentially nullify the entire process to dissolve the JCFPD.

At stake is the safety of the community.  The County and the JCFPD contenders each contend that  the community will be safer if their side prevails. 

County hires company to provide surveillance of social media posts by JCFPD supporters and media

At an impromptu news conference outside the courtroom after Thursday’s hearing, ECM asked for Briggs’ opinion on the revelation in a declaration  that the County of San Diego has employed DigiStream, a Davis, California-based social media surveillance investigation firm, to monitor social media posts made by JCFPD supporters and volunteers, as well as local news media.

Briggs said simply, “I’ve been asked to tone down the rhetoric.”

But on social media, the revelation of county surveillance prompted angry reactions from some Julian residents, who prior to Thursday's hearing posted the message, “Big Brother is Watching.”

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