[San Diego County] Julian Fire Department in Final Days? Voter Fraud, Grand Jury Interest Alleged

Blog note: read the item about alleged grand jury interest toward the end of the article.

When results of Julian’s Measure A election are certified Thursday, the clock begins ticking down the days of the last volunteer fire department in San Diego County.

But officials aren’t clear on exactly when time expires — ending the 35-year-old Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District and launching county control via Cal Fire.

Meanwhile, a legal challenge to the election is being discussed, and the District Attorney’s Office has been sent complaints alleging voter fraud in the referendum ending March 19.

And the county Grand Jury might be interested in the fraught path to dissolution.

On Wednesday, the local leader of the agency that oversees new public bodies said he’ll receive certified results April 8 and expects the transfer of firefighting and ambulance services to County Service Area 135 to happen “as soon as possible.”

“Under the law, that means any time through December 19,” added Keene Simonds, executive officer of the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO. “The commission is expected to provide feedback to staff on setting the transfer date on April 8.”

Results as of Wednesday showed mail ballots from 1,434 of 2,496 district residents have been counted — a remarkable 57.4% turnout rate.

Some 773 residents (54%) voted “yes” on Measure A to dissolve the district vs. 659 (46%) voting to keep the district with dozens of professionally trained volunteers.

Simonds said he was hoping to meet with JCFPD and the county ahead of the LAFCO meeting to “collectively talk about a possible transition plan and setting a firm transfer date.”

But he said Julian fire district officials declined to meet. (Julian officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.)

Alex Bell, a spokeswoman for San Diego County, said Wednesday that a decision on when to end Julian’s fire agency will be made by LAFCO on April 8, “but we expect dissolution to occur on April 8.”

She said Julian’s assets, including the new fire station on the Mosler Property deeded to the Kumeyaay Diegueño Land Conservancy, will transfer “when the Certificate of Completion is recorded by LAFCO.”

The JCFPD board will be dissolved and district assets will transfer immediately to the county upon recording of that document, Bell said via email.

When that happens, Julian won’t have its own fire chief. Tony Mecham of Cal Fire, as the county’s fire chief, will oversee operations in the 87-square-mile backcountry tourist mecca.

Despite concerns that the Julian fire station acreage on state Route 79 would revert to the Kumeyaay Diegueño Land Conservancy, county spokeswoman Bell said title for that property is held by the JCFPD.

“Titles to all assets, including the fire station property, will transfer automatically to the county upon dissolution,” she said.

A conservancy phone number wasn’t answered Wednesday, and email to its leader yielded no response.

But Brian Kramer, a member of the Julian fire board, said recently that a citizens group might challenge the Measure A election.

“There’s chatter on Facebook about multiple people here in Julian who know … people who voted in this election who do not live here,” Kramer said in a phone interview. “They live in Colorado. They live down the hill. They don’t have residency here.”

He also said some Julian residents didn’t get their ballots — having bounced after being sent to a residential address instead of a P.O. Box.

Under state law, voters can contest an election for a variety of reasons, including that illegal votes were cast or errors occurred in the vote-counting programs or summation of ballot counts.

Kramer said complaints about voter fraud have gone to Registrar of Voters Michael Vu.

Vu confirmed this.

“We did receive a complaint alleging there were three registered voters not residing in the district,” he told Times of San Diego. “This was forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office for review.”

(DA spokeswoman Tanya Sierra said: “Our office cannot confirm whether or not there is an open investigation.”)

But Vu last month denied that nonresidents would have been mailed a ballot. In any case, he’s received no complaints that someone wasn’t able to vote because they did not get a mail ballot.

“In every election (including this one), voters who are eligible to participate and who state they did not receive their ballot would have the originally mailed ballot suspended and a new ballot sent to them,” he said.

The newly elected Julian fire board opposes dissolution in contrast to the previous panel, which requested the breakup.

And the board is pursuing its own legal challenges to Brown Act violations of the previous fire board.

Toward that end, it has hired Cory Briggs as special counsel, who’s “got a reputation as a bulldog,” board member Kramer said, alluding to the San Diego mayoral candidate’s history of quashing City of San Diego efforts to fund Convention Center expansion.

Briggs, who said he was retained by the board March 15 and would charge a discounted $275 an hour, declined to discuss litigation strategy publicly.

Kramer also said he and two other Julian fire agency advocates attended a 3-hour “integrity check” meeting March 11 at the Registrar of Voters Office where at least three members of the San Diego County Grand Jury showed special interest.

“As we were leaving, a couple of them said: ‘Good luck on your vote, good luck, good luck. We’re watching it,'” Kramer said last month. “I just thought it was very interesting that they were there.”

Rose Orcino-Madruga, foreperson of the 2018/2019 San Diego County Grand Jury, confirmed that grand jurors attended what she called the public “Logic and Accuracy Test” meeting at Vu’s invitation.

She said the registrar regularly issues invitations to the public and others to observe its operations.

But she wouldn’t say whether an investigation was under way.

“The Grand Jury is prohibited from discussing anything further regarding its activities pursuant to Penal Code Sections 911 and 924, et seq.,” Orcino-Madruga said via email.

The day after the March 19 vote, county Supervisor Dianne Jacob noted that final numbers were not yet in but said: “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.”

LAFCO’s Simonds echoed that sentiment Wednesday.

“This proposal has generated a considerable amount of interest on both sides of the reorganization over the last year and ultimately left to the voters to decide,” he said.

“To this end, and with a relatively high turnout aided by the decision to use a mail ballot, a clear majority of voters in Julian support the reorganization. It is now time to move on per the voters and implement the reorganization.”

April 3, 2019

Times of San Diego

By Ken Stone

County: