Reporting from San Diego — The mood at the rally before the meeting was California mellow: reggae music, dancing and plenty of backcountry bonhomie.
But it grew darker when several dozen supporters of Joseph Diliberti, the former Marine turned Rastafarian and tax-protester, crossed Peaceful Valley Ranch Road to attend Tuesday night's board meeting of the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District.
With anger, name-calling and historic analogies, supporters called on the board to back down in its contretemps with Diliberti over a $27,552 unpaid bill for brush clearance. Responding to a complaint, a private company hired by the district removed brush from Diliberti's property in 2004 while he was out of town.
After refusing to pay the bill or his property taxes for six years, the tab has grown to more than $62,000 and left Diliberti, whose sole income is a military disability pension, on the verge of having his three-acre spread east of El Cajon sold by the county at auction to pay back taxes.
One supporter accused the board of acting like "a bunch of fascist dictators who gave their buddies this $25,000 contract."
Diliberti, a Vietnam veteran in his mid-60s, joined in the anger and at one point seemed close to being ejected by San Diego County sheriff's deputies.
"You're butchers," Diliberti screamed at the five-member board. "You came to my land with a chainsaw. You're gutless, heartless people who don't know how to smile."
While most of the crowd supported Diliberti, a mother of three from San Diego told the board that going soft on Diliberti would encourage other scofflaws and increase the chances of another catastrophic fire like those in 2003 and 2007 that destroyed thousands of homes and scorched hundreds of thousands of acres.
"If he gets away with it, what's to keep other San Diegans from not clearing their brush?" Jill Sorge said as the crowd booed. "I would like to protect my children."
In the end, the board wouldn't budge.
Diliberti's next venue is the county Board of Supervisors, where he is not likely to get a different decision.