JULIAN, Calif. — A county attorney's request Wednesday for a judge change postponed a court hearing regarding the recent dissolution of the region's last volunteer fire department in the mountain community of Julian, where local residents and supporters of the volunteer firefighting district continue to protest the decision with a sit-in at the town's fire station.
Members of the Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District are seeking to continue overseeing firefighting operations in Julian, despite a special election in which nearly 56 percent of voters approved the handover of firefighting duties to the county.
The election results were certified Monday in a unanimous vote by the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, though the volunteer firefighters argue that LAFCO sought to dissolve the volunteer department in violation of the Brown Act, rendering the election results and LAFCO vote "null and void."
On Monday, a county transition team arrived at the volunteer fire station but was kept out by around 30 protesters who locked themselves inside the station. On Wednesday afternoon, a number of those protesters remained holed up inside the station.
County authorities said that as of late this afternoon, no attempts had been made to remove the protesters from the building.
Julian firefighters had planned to argue this morning that the JCFPD be allowed "to continue its operations without LAFCO or county interference," per the alleged Brown Act violations, though the hearing was quickly postponed to April 17 after county attorneys requested a new judge. Attorneys declined to comment on why they wanted Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil off the case.
According to Cory Briggs, an attorney representing the Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection District, a different San Diego Superior Court judge recently sided with the fire department in its lawsuit against the county over the alleged Brown Act violations.
"You have zero legal authority to do what you're proposing to do today," Briggs told the LAFCO commissioners at their Monday meeting.
The JCFPD issued a statement Monday alleging "LAFCO knew that JCFPD's dissolution application had been submitted illegally after three former board members conspired with Supervisor (and LAFCO board member) Dianne Jacob to eliminate local control over fire protection and emergency medical services."
The fire district also claims that a judge "declared the three former board members' actions `null and void' because they had conceived of their dissolution plan in secret."
Briggs further alleges that per the language of the fire station's deed, the building transfers to a Native American Land Trust, the Kumeyaay Diegueno Land Conservancy, upon the fire district's dissolution. Briggs said county attempts to take the property after dissolving the fire district are akin to trespassing.
"You are, in effect, leaving that community without lawful fire service," Briggs said.
Proponents of Measure A, which dissolved the fire department, said having county fire crews oversee firefighting operations would increase services and lower taxes, and that the JCFPD lacked funding and was understaffed.
Opponents said dissolving the volunteer fire corps will have Julian relying on Cal Fire crews "from out of the area who are unfamiliar with our community and territory."
Several Julian residents complained at the LAFCO meeting that Cal Fire crews have previously gotten lost trying to respond to fire and medical calls in the rural community.
Jacob and county fire authorities argue that fire service will continue to be more than adequate in the absence of the volunteer fire department.
"Cooler heads need to prevail," Jacob said in a statement emailed to City News Service. "A sit-in that disrupts the operation of a fire station is beyond short-sighted, but it's good to know that service to the community is being handled out of the other stations."
The County Fire Authorit's Alex Bell said there has been no loss of service since the sit-in began. Bell noted that the nearest Cal Fire station is less than two miles away, just north of the volunteer fire station on nearby Banner Road.