By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If polling paid for by a firefighters’ union is accurate, Guerneville-area residents are on their way to electing new board leadership for the Russian River Fire Protection District.
The recall vote less than two weeks from now comes in the wake of political upheaval last fall over the dismissal of the district’s chief, Max Ming.
But supporters said it’s driven, as well, by longtime grievances about the district board and what they describe as micromanagement, secrecy and disrespect toward firefighters and the public.
Several board members, including the recall targets, said the vote is a power grab by the union.
The fire district has a history of political tumult, including a complete recall of the board in 1990, frequent board resignations and a revolving door through which more than a dozen fire chiefs have passed since the mid-1980s.
The county election’s office says about a fifth of the area’s voters already have cast mail-in ballots to be counted toward the April 8 election.
Firefighters and their allies hope to oust two sitting board members and install a pair of replacements. The recall targets Kevin O’Shea, who once served as fire chief in Guerneville and Bodega Bay and has been on the board since 2002, and vice president Linda Payne, who operates a San Francisco daycare center and has served 3 1/2 years on the board.
Seeking election to their seats are Chuck Limbert, a San Francisco police lieutenant, and retired Alameda County firefighter Mark Emmett. Both are Guerneville residents.
A telephone poll by well-known Sonoma County political consultant Herb Williams puts support for the recall at 80 percent or more, said Fire Capt. Ryan Lantz, president of the firefighters’ union.
“It looks like the basketball term — slam-dunk,” recall supporter Lloyd Guccione said.
But some of those surveyed said the poll included the kind of questioning that’s designed to shape sentiment more than measure it.
Interviews with people in the district last week, in neighborhoods and in public venues, turned up many who weren’t aware of the issues, despite huge red and white signs prominently displayed at all the main entrances to town. Several locals said they think only a minority are really interested in the recall.
But those who are engaged “are really passionate,” resident Lynette Guptill said.
The entire discussion leaves O’Shea and Payne, and their supporters, disappointed and disgusted.
They questioned both the expense of a special election — up to $22,000 — when both are serving terms ending in November, and the willingness of recall supporters to vote them out of office without knowing the confidential details behind the decision to relieve Ming of his post.
It’s unclear, as well, why just the two were targeted when the five-member board was unanimous in its Aug. 2 decision to remove Ming as chief of the Russian River district. He later was reinstated.
“The whole board should have been recalled if anyone should have been recalled,” said former board member Frank Lambert Jr., who became so disenchanted that he resigned last winter.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation … that’s accepted as fact,” said board member Nancy Jo Wood.
Ming works for the Forestville Fire Protection District but serves as part-time chief of the Russian River district under contract between the agencies. In Guerneville, he manages 12 paid firefighters, who rallied behind him when he was removed and are largely responsible for the recall effort.
But Ming said he’s played no role in that effort and is prepared “to move on” with whatever board members the voters choose.
Lantz, the union president, said the recall of O’Shea and Payne is necessary if Ming is to have that chance.
“We’re looking out for the best interests of the district here,” Lantz said, “and trying to create an environment that would empower the fire chief to do his job.”
At the time he was relieved, Ming had served for about 18 months as chief of the 20-square-mile Russian River district. In addition to Guerneville, it takes in Rio Nido, Armstrong Valley, Vacation Beach and Guernewood and Oddfellows parks.
Board members at the time said they could not cite specific reasons for his firing because of confidentiality surrounding personnel issues.
A letter subsequently provided to the Forestville district board and leaked to the public listed three dozen complaints about Ming’s conduct, revealing a pattern of contention over purchasing, delayed paperwork and actions the board said violated its directives and policies.
It included claims that Ming had divulged confidential information from closed board meetings to staff; had scheduled work for firefighters at a rate that generated alarming overtime; and had mishandled confidential documents.
The district’s female administrative assistant has filed a legal claim contending Ming contributed to a persistently unfair and hostile work environment.
“People are not really aware of the facts,” Payne said. “There were so many things we could not discuss in those meetings, when we were being yelled at.”
“When we took the action we took,” said O’Shea, “our attorney said to me, ‘Relax, Kevin. You guys know all of the facts. They can only guess.’ And that was comforting that we knew the facts that we acted on. We still have those facts.”
Ming said he was completely blindsided by the dismissal, though board members said they had spoken with him repeatedly about their concerns over his job performance.
His ouster became a cause celebre, drawing hundreds to regular board meetings and creating a social environment that divided longtime friends and acquaintances.
Ming was reinstated in mid-November after mediation resulted in an adjustment in the seven-year chiefs-sharing contract with Forestville. The board can now terminate the contract at will.
But recall supporters said the board is holding back the chief and district personnel from working in a constructive, progressive environment.
Members of the public said they’ve lost confidence and trust in the board, and in O’Shea and Payne, who they said largely controlled the other board members.
“There’s work to be done on both sides,” said Emmett, who seeks to succeed O’Shea. “But truly, what has to happen is there has to be a level of trust in there, and it goes into communication, and at this point that trust is gone. There’s just no way to regain that.”
Lambert, Payne and others said they believe the firefighters are making a play for control of the district and its operations, and putting at risk the system of checks-and-balances that objective board oversight brings.
But Emmett said they have nothing to fear.
“I can tell you that that’s not going to happen,” he said.
Neither O’Shea nor Payne is making any real effort to preserve their posts. Both said they stand by their records and their decisions on Ming. O’Shea said he announced long ago he did not intend to run again in November, though Payne says she will seek re-election if she survives the recall.
“I loved every minute of this,” Payne said. “No matter how hard this has been, it has been one of the best experiences of my life.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or email@example.com.)