By Miriam Raftery
December 14, 2017 (Julian) — The Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District is the only volunteer fire department in our region that has chosen to remain independent. The department’s board voted recently 4 to 1 vote against dissolving the district and joining the San Diego County Fire Authority (SDCFA), sparking heated debate.
Now, a recall petition has been launched against the board chairman, Jack Shelver, the lone supporter of consolidation. In addition, the website “Save JCFPD” has posted a notice stating that the “vast majority” of the district’s volunteer firefighters support a letter to the board voicing a “vote of no confidence” in Fire Chief Rick Marinelli. Both documents were presented to the board on November 14, the documents state.
But Shelver and Marinelli are fighting back, disputing claims made by their opponents.
Backers of the independence movement are pushing for a ballot initiative to raise the Fire Service Benefit Fee for district residents from $50 to $200 a year. They are circulated petitions at http://www.supportjcfpd.org. The effort is led by Patricia Landis, Shantel Seoane and Leslie Crouch. Opponents of independence say that’s not enough to assure financial viability, since the County has indicated it will revoke its long-standing financial support of the district for refusing to join the SDCFA, which partners with Cal-Fire for firefighting services.
The district completed building a new fire station in May, has about 18 volunteer firefighters and added a new fire engine and ambulance over the last two years. The district had about $250,000 in reserves as of November, but losing County support would mean the district would have to be self-reliant. A group called Julian Fire Plugs has formed to raise funds through donations and grants.
In an e-mail sent to ECM, Shelver wrote, “Pat Landis and the Volunteer firefighters don’t agree with my position with regard to the highest level of future fire and emergency medical service to the community so they have chosen to personally attack me and my character. Some of their statements are opinions and not factual and others are simply not true. For me to respond to the charges would merely put me in the gutter with them. They are willing to pay for a recall election to get me out of office four months before my term is up.”
The recall notice claims that Shelver failed to provide leadership, specifically, that he has “pursued a goal of dissolving the district, against the wishes of the majority of the community.” It further claims he violated the Brown Act by failing to provide adequate notice before negotiating to dispose of property to the SDCFA, held meetings and phone conversations with SDCFA without designated board members present, called a critic in the community “dishonest” and other names, and fostered SDCFA presentations to dissolve the district instead of creating a plan to maintain and grow the volunteer fire district.
Chief Marinelli told ECM, “I’m not aware of any vote the firefighters took.” He notes the letter on the Save JCFPD website is unsigned, adding, “I have a list of over 20 Julian firefighters who did not have any knowledge of this letter,” he said, and provided a list of those names to ECM. Also, they have not provided one shred of evidence to back up any of their claims.”
Brian Crouch is president of Julian Volunteer Fire Company Association, the firefighters’ association. In a phone call with ECM, he confirmed that the vote was in fact not taken of the firefighters at large, but that instead, “there was a survey taken among the company officers. We were trying to protect the firefighters.“ He says the survey result of officers “was unanimous that we could not work with him [Chief Marinelli] on any of these issues…It became really evident that he was not working with us on issues of staying independent, even though the board had voted to remain independent.”
Croucher contends that Marinelli “was bullying some of the firefighters” including reserves in training and that this included “sexual and gender harassment.”
The vote of no confidence letter claims, among other things, that Marinelli and Shelver have failed to provide a plan for maintenance and growth of the JCFPD, instead “colluding to reverse the Board decision.” It notes that over 100 people attended and spoke at a recent meeting, and most who spoke supported independence. The letter states that Steve Howerzyl, president of the San Pasqual Fire Department board, attested that the nonprofit San Pasqual district was dissolving and wanted to donate $40,000 to buy a water tender for the Julian-Cuyamaca district, but that Chief Marinelli said the district couldn’t afford maintenance on the vehicle. The letter claims volunteer firefighters’ charges against the Chief include “abandonment of his post, failure to participate in training and community outreach activities, creating a hostile work environment and providing erroneous material at a Board meeting. “The unsigned letter further claims the Chief has been “contentious and demoralizing,” making “demoralizing statements about the men and women he supervises.”
Marinelli provided a vigorous defense. “I am not guilty of one thing in that letter,” he states, adding that while there may have been “friendly banter” at times, “If any firefighter had formally complained, I’d be happy to apologize. Other than that, there is not one shred of truth. I would take a lie detector test.” He contends the letter is “embellishment and lies.”
He addressed some of the points specifically, asserted that he has not violated the Brown Act and is not even an elected official. He says he has had closed door meetings with the board president, which he believes is legal, but denies any private meetings with a group of board members, which would put those elected members in violation of the Brown Act had such meetings occurred.
He says his own views on the independence vs. consolidation issue don’t matter but adds that the issue has “pros and cons.” He notes, “The board of directors set the policy. I will do as directed.” He contends Landis, a former board member who did not win reelection, has a “vendetta” against him and claims “malicious gossip” directed at him amounts to a “witch hunt.”
Landis, in an e-mail to ECM, says she is concerned that “the plan is for JCFPD to be managed by Cal Fire from Sacramento, 520 miles away,” noting that’s where both Cal Fire and Cal Fire’s firefighters’ local 2881 are located. She views notices mailed to residents by Patrick Walker, an officer in the Cal Fire union local 2881, as scare tactics. Postcards stated, “Fire protection and safety services in the Julian-Cuyamaca area is at risk. Do you want to lose your paramedic engine?” She contends the union’s priority is creating paid union jobs to provide firefighting for the mountain communities currently served by volunteers.
She fears Cal Fire employees could be transferred, leaving the communities here without staff knowledgeable about the region, or that Julian’s resources could be dispatched to a wildfire elsewhere, leaving Julian “unprotected for structure fires and emergency medical services. This is what happened during the Cedar Fire. Our volunteers were assisting down the hill when our Fire Chief realized the fire was turning and heading back toward Julian. He did not need permission to return to Julian to protect as many homes as possible.”
Landis provided links to several articles on cost of Cal Fire supplying fire coverage where issues arose:
- Raises climb quickly in new Cal Fire contract
- How Riverside County supervisors reacted to proposed fire service cuts
- Fire budget cuts not received with acclaim
- Fire Chief: Proposal Puts More Than 40 Positions on Chopping Block
Chief Marinelli takes issue with a budget put out by Landis, contending it’s “not nearly enough to cover the services she’s promising the public.”
He also argues that the tax increase proposed by the ballot initiative would raise only around $350,000, if approved by voters. “The County has taken away a paramedic unit from us…We would have to hire three EMTs (emergency medical technicians) and three paramedics at a minimum…that costs just under $400,000.” He faults Landis for suggesting the district could afford a full-time chief and buying a water tender at a time when the district stands to lose free dispatch services from the County. “The numbers don’t add up,” he contends.
As for working fewer hours, he notes that the board voted to hire him to work 40 hours a week, then cut that to three days a week due to budget problems, “So their accusations of not during work on days off is untrue,” he told ECM during a phone call on a Sunday.
The Chief defends his record and sent ECM a list of his accomplishments. “In the last four and a half years, I’ve managed to balance the ambulance and surplus budget and build surpluses in both,” he said. “We rewon the bid to maintain ambulance service and negotiated the subsidy from $70,000 to $130,000. I also negotiated purchase of a new ambulance at no cost to the district.”
Other accomplishments claimed by Marinelli include buying a new fire truck and getting a new fire station built, a project that had previously been idle for a decade. “We’ve recruited probably over 100 reserve firefighters and as chief, I promoted two battalion chiefs,” the embattled Chief concludes, adding, “No one’s pointing those things out...”
Marinelli notes that he’s been in public service nearly 40 years, serving in the U.S. Forest Service before heading up the JCFPD. “The only thing I am supportive of as the Chief is to do what’s best for protection of life and property,” he concludes. “That’s my sworn duty as the chief.”