Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Case of Joseph Diliberti

It looks like we're now getting into that very exciting time of the year where our friends upside the mountain are forced into evacuating from their homes due to "isolated debris and mudflows." And in order to encourage their cooperation the powers that be will - if they feel they need to do so - turn off the electricity of those not leaving quickly enough.

Now I have friends on both sides of this equation, and I'm not going to take any sides here. Though I do believe in the popular wisdom that those homes that are most likely to be saved are the ones with people in them. Of course, that has more to do with fires than mudslides. And compared to some of those in the harrowing tale I'm telling today, our local sometimes overly zealous protectors seem rather quaint and cuddly.

Joseph Diliberti is a former United States Marine Corps member who served in some of the toughest theaters of action during the Vietnam War. Upon his return home from the war he began a career in his first love, which is art. He developed an independent and simple style of expression that has led to his creations being celebrated throughout the world.

There are a couple of video features that have been put together about Joseph Diliberti, and the best way to understand his perspective on life is to view them here before going on to the rest of this post. It will make what comes after all the more heartbreaking and infuriating for you. If that is what you like.

The first item comes from The Los Angeles Times. It is what they call an "audio slide show," which is a series of photographs of Joseph and his art as explained in the artist's own voice. The piece is entitled "A Former Marine Does It His Way," and you can access it here. The acclaimed documentary film maker Gustavo Vasquez made a film about Joseph called "Free From Babylon." You can access that one here. The organization that has taken up Joseph's cause is the California Chaparral Institute. They have posted a video on their site called "A Conversation with Joseph Diliberti." You can access this video by clicking here.

And if you want to see what it is that Diliberti creates, click here for an amazing magazine article on his handmade ceramic homes. Works that would be destroyed by the County of San Diego should they make good on their threat to seize and sell off his property.

So what happened to Joseph? Government agencies in San Diego County took it upon themselves to contract with a company to clear cut vegetation from the 3.7 acres he lives on in the name of fire safety. They did it without either his permission or knowledge as he was away from his property on an extended vacation when it occurred. No legally binding notice was given to him that this action would take place. And despite all of what is listed above San Diego County is now claiming Diliberti owes over $65,000 in "weed abatement" costs. And the County government is threatening to seize his land, homes and works and sell them at auction in order to get it.

The California Chaparral Institute has taken up Joseph's cause and has engaged the ACLU and others in the effort to stop the government from destroying Diliberti's life. Here is an account of just how badly this guy's rights have been abused.

County to seize property of US Marine over improper chaparral clearing - excessive weed abatement policy threatens fire safety, nature, civil liberties, and private property rights:

Joseph Diliberti, a Vietnam veteran (US Marine Corps) and an iconic artist admired around the world, will be losing his home because a local fire district abused its power under a questionable "weed abatement" ordinance.

According to the San Diego Tax Collector, sometime in March, 2011 the county will force Joseph out of his home of nearly 30 years by selling his property during a public auction in order to obtain payment on a $27,552 weed abatement charge (plus $30,000 in penalties and interest) for vegetation "clearance" work conducted in 2004. The area cleared was less than a half acre.

State law (PRC 4291) allows for such liens to compel property owners to pay for reasonable vegetation clearance work performed under an "abatement" order. However, the law is supposed to be applied in a fair and just manner. In Joseph's case, it wasn't. He neither knew about the ordered abatement (issued 2/19/04) nor was he present when the work occurred (3/4/04). He was away for several weeks visiting a friend when the contractor, Fire Prevention Services (FPS), entered his property without permission or adequate notice and unnecessarily hacked down the natural landscape around his home. His was one of the few in the area that survived the 2003 Cedar Fire ...

Nearly everyone we have dealt with, from the San Diego Rural Fire District fire chief, to the tax collector, to the public, have all labeled what has happened to Joseph as outrageous. However, because of the way the bureaucracy rolls along, just because an injustice is recognized doesn't mean it will be corrected. To date, no one in a position of authority has come forward and recognized the need to solve the problem despite the fact that Joseph, and dozens of private citizens, have had their lives turned upside down by the abuse of power through the unfair enforcement of "weed abatement" regulations.

The complete article from the California Chaparral Institute can be read here.

The American Civil Liberties Union has become involved in the Diliberti case. Here is what they had to say about this situation in a letter to the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District:

I am writing on behalf of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties to express our strong concerns about the impending auction of Joseph Diliberti's home to satisfy the $63,000 lien on his property. The ACLU believes the lien and auction would unfairly deprive Mr. Diliberti of his home. We urge you to seek an alternative solution that does not leave Mr. Diliberti homeless.

The ACLU goes on to list the many reasons why this action against Joseph Diliberti may be both unjust and illegal.

Government involvement in seeing to the safety of citizens is one thing. But when those actions go on to destroy peoples' lives you have to wonder what exactly the real purpose can be. And apparently the contractor the county used in the Diliberti case, Fire Prevention Services, has been involved in other highly contentious - and suspect - cases as well. This from the CCI website:

Joseph's situation is not an isolated case. Dozens of similar abuses have been brought to our attention since we started looking into what happened to Joseph. For example, a couple in El Cajon were charged $5,340 by FPS to remove vegetation they had done in previous years for $300. They received the abatement notice just before going on vacation and didn't have time to take care of the problem. They left on their trip, figuring they would just pay for the abatement when they returned. The couple nearly lost their home before they decided they could no longer afford to fight the matter in court and ended up paying $41,000 because of fines and penalties to resolve the matter.

When nanny government seeks to exercise its will upon people in the name of safety without taking into regard due process or the rights of those they claim to be helping, then we have a system that has obviously gone off the tracks.

And yes, it can happen here.


  1. The slide show is very touching. The thought of Joseph losing his home is daunting. We who pushed the eminent domain proposition last April are very aware of what Government can do to its citizens. They called us Chicken Little for warning about SB375 and AB32. Now we have to worry about SB97 that threatens to change our way of life by altering our building codes. The Sierra Madre Development Services didn't just add or amend the CEQUA Guidelines to include new GHG guidelines; they changed several areas to leave us vulnerable. Most notable are the traffic and parking areas.

  2. BTW, check out the article on Patch -- "Sierra Madre and Fireman Ted Walters reach settlement on overtime dispute." He even got overtime pay for volunteer hours. Does that mean all "volunteers" are now getting paid? Wow, I am now a millionaire.

  3. 11:24, you have the texts that show intentional editing by city staff, rather than the traffic/parking edit being from the state?

  4. Hunh. Local government and state government pointing fingers at each other. How piquant.

  5. Isn't that how government justifies itself to those whose money
    they need to survive? Protection and services? Not sure it's such
    a good deal.

  6. In Sierra Madre we do have some people who want to cut down all non native trees for fire safety......

  7. 12:28 maybe that's one of the reasons there are so few protected trees in this "tree" city.

  8. Give some fools a county or city job and they think that means they get to play almighty God with their neighbors.

  9. Aiyai Crawford, this is a big old debatable topic.
    On the one hand you have people claiming that one person's eucalyptus endangers the neighbors, and on the other hand you have that person saying but my eucalyptus is on my property and does me good.
    Very hard call.
    So who originally dropped the dime on the gentleman in San Diego? A neighbor who was worried?

  10. Can tell a lot about a report by how it leads off.

    The world famous artist Viet Nam vet Diliberti


    The Rastafarian artist Viet Nam vet Diliberti

  11. You have a problem with Rastafarians, mon? Maybe I should Jihadi Henderson you are a Rastaphobe?

  12. 12:06 who knows? I have the red-lined text of the document the City wants the Planning Commission to approve. The state docs are not available or let's say I don't have them.

  13. So we have an eccentric and unique Rastafarian on four acres in rural San Diego.....doesn't bring a thought or two to mind?

  14. 12:50, This could be wrong, but I thought the redline on the parking/traffic came from the state, not the city, and that all city codes about traffic/parking were unaffected. Until you have texts to compare, why make the accusation?

  15. After having watched the videos I sense that Diliberti would not be a big fan of Transit Oriented Development.

  16. 12:56 good point, I'll check it out. We have until the Jan. Planning Commission to get our facts straight. In the meantime, keep checking.

  17. Maybe I'm off track here, but this seems to be a recurring theme in government. It's a racket to get money. They have a bogus process that allows them to do something with none of the safeguards that protect the citizen from the consequences. They do it, charge an outrageous price, attach fines and penalties--none of it reviewable--and then voila!! Suddenly they own your property. Sounds unconstitutional to me. I like that the ACLU is writing about this, but in my world, they should be filing a case in federal court challenging this process because it seems inadequate on its face. Thanks for bringing this up, Sir Eric. Pretty frightening, but definitely not the only case of this kind, unfortunately.

  18. 2;38...Thank you..In a nut shell.


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