Residents weigh legal challenge as election paves way for County Fire Authority and CAL FIRE to assume fire protection and medical emergency services
By Paul Kruze, Contributing Editor
April 5, 2019 (Julian-Cuyamaca) - After nearly two years of controversy, Julian residents voted on Mar. 19 by mail ballot to abolish the 34-year old Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District (JCFPD) and replace it with fire and medical emergency services provided by the San Diego Fire Authority and Cal Fire.
The San Diego Registrar of Voters officially certified the election on Thursday with 1,433 votes counted, 774 citizens (or 54 percent) voting “yes” on Measure A to follow through a decision made last September by the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission to abolish the JCFPD. 659 citizens (or nearly 46 percent), voted “no” on the measure, which passed by 115 votes. Two ballots were spoiled and not counted towards the final vote count.
In an earlier ECM interview, Mike Menghini, president of the JCFPD board, referred to the election as “illegal” based on the behavior and actions of the former Board of Directors in the course of process which led up to the filing of the application to dissolve with the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
Menghini’s later e-mail statement to ECM was more conciliatory. “We believe in the vote of the citizens and they have spoken. We are aware that there are lawsuits in the works that are not board related. Only that can reverse the dissolution process. We will wait and see,” he said.
The Mar. 19 vote was mandated by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors last December when the San Diego LAFCO received enough “protest letters” from local residents to overturn an earlier decision a month earlier to dissolve the Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District.
The volunteer district has hired San Diego attorney Cory Briggs, who is known for challenging local government entities on transparency issues.
The current JCFPD board, which is now comprised of totally new members since the decision to dissolve, is hedging its bets on its earlier argument by San Diego attorney, Craig Sherman. In the JCFPD’s complaint heard by San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel, Sherman contended that a May 8 JCFPD board vote on the county deal to insert Cal Fire crews into the Julian station should be voided because it wasn’t properly “noticed” — that the public wasn’t made aware that the board would take action by only hearing a presentation.
Under the California open government law also known as that Ralph Brown Act, regular meetings by government must be “noticed” through the posting of an agenda at least 72 hours before the meeting. Special meetings may be called, but only upon 24 hours notice to each local newspaper of general circulation, radio or television station that has in writing requested notice. The notice must be posted in a location freely accessible to the public. Only the business specified for discussion at the special meeting may be addressed.
Emergency meetings may be called under specific, drastic circumstances. The 24 hour notice rule is not necessary, but a one hour notification of those media requesting notice is necessary if possible.
Medel, however, didn’t agree and rejected Sherman’s emergency stay to block the previous board’s action. When Sherman tried to appeal Medel’s decision in another legal complaint, the judge remained unswayed.
Throwing another significant potential monkey wrench in LAFCO’s process of turning over control for emergency services in Julian to the county could be land claims being pursued by the Kumeyaay Indian Land Trust.
One of the Julian fire stations sits on land on State Route 79 south of downtown Julian belonging to the Kumeyaay Diegueno Land Conservancy (KDLC)
As reported by ECM last May, John “Eagle Spear” Elliott of the KDLC brought to the attention of county supervisors hearing that late Julian resident Frances Mosler had deeded 6.4 acres of land to the Native American Land Conservancy — acreage later transferred to the Kumeyaay group.
“By dissolving itself as a district, the property where the fire station was eventually constructed automatically reverts to KDLC for its use consistent with the underlying deed,” Elliott said.
Although Elliott said KDLC wasn’t taking sides after the JCFPD earlier decision to dissolve the district, he said the conservancy hadn’t been approached by the county, LAFCO, or the JCFPD regarding issues surrounding the deed held by them.
Another stumbling block toward gaining control of Julian emergency services that could be faced by the County is that 35 Julian JCFPD supporters have reportedly filed complaints with the County Grand Jury claiming election irregularities including fraud, according to sources.
At its September meeting, San Diego LAFCO conditionally approved the joint-reorganization to transfer fire protection and EMS from the Julian-Cuyamaca FPD to the County of San Diego's Fire Authority and its implementing agent, County Service Area (CSA) 135 and CAL FIRE. CSA 135 includes all unincorporated areas of East County including the backcountry areas including Julian.
Local residents flocked to Facebook to debate the issue during the spirited campaign of several months leading up to last month’s vote.
Some Julian residents strongly opposed the decision and collected signatures to urge the county Board of Supervisors to call a referendum on the dissolution, which the board did in December.
Those arguing to abolish the local volunteer fire protection district which has been in existence since 1984 have stated the belief that JCFPD would not have the capital to sustain the volunteer force. Since that decision, every member of JCFPD has been replaced either by vote or resignation.
Those who argued not to abolish the district have said that it does have the financial strength to continue serving the area. It has also said that the JCFPD with its volunteer firefighters has better response times to traffic accidents and fire emergencies better than CAL FIRE and the County Fire Authority in the interim time it has provided services to the Julian area.
The San Diego County Fire Authority will serve the area with contracted assistance from Cal Fire. Cal Fire Local 2881, the organization's union, has strongly backed the proposal.
In a statement, Board of Supervisor Dianne Jacob said about the election, “Although we don’t have final election numbers yet, it is my hope that the community will now come together regardless of the outcome and heal after what was a long and often divisive debate over this issue. We all want a safer and better protected Julian, and I believe we should work side-by-side to reach that goal.”
Effective today, emergency medical services provided by the JCFPD ceased, leaving area residents reliant on county-provided ambulance service.
With the imminent changeover, Alex Bell, a public information officer for the County of San Diego in an e-mail to ECM said, that includes “Advanced Life Support (paramedic),” adding, “Mercy Medical Transport, Inc. has also offered to provide equivalent employment for up to six paid staff on the current ambulance.”
While Bell deferred to Mercy for a direct comment, he said that in the event that a four-wheel drive ambulance is needed in Julian, the County has several 4-wheel drive ambulances for rural communities that can be made available if needed.
Residents however voice concerns that this could result in delays in life-saving medical treatments to remote areas within mountain communities previously served by the JCFPD.
Follow Paul Kruze on Twitter and Facebook: @PaulKruzeNews