Calif. Fire Chief's Firing Causing Uproar

Oct. 9, 2013
Chief Max Ming still heads Forestville Fire Protection District, but not Russian River.

Oct. 08--Recent turmoil within the Russian River Fire Protection District transformed the slow and steady pace of civic engagement in and around Guerneville to a raging river of public discontent.

Normally quiet affairs attended by district directors and community activists, fire board meetings have become raucous events with heated calls for change filling the Armstrong Woods Road fire station.

The maelstrom was set off by the sudden August firing of popular Chief Max Ming, less than two years into a seven-year contract with the Forestville Fire Protection District to share a chief.

"This is an initiative by a community definitely not agreeing to a decision the board made, but it is also that the community has awakened," said longtime Guerneville resident Herman Hernandez, who works in town as a broker with Frank Howard Allen.

Ming's firing outraged firefighters and vocal members of the community who support Ming and, in response, have launched a recall campaign to oust at least two board members.

Even faced with a recall and entering mediation, board members have stood by their decision.

In a list of three dozen reasons behind the board's decision to dismiss Ming from the post that has been circulating in the community, the board laid out complaints ranging from the mishandling of confidential personnel files to delays getting the gutters cleaned.

The 10-page document, produced at the request of an attorney and remarkable in its microscopic look at the day-to-day handling of firehouse business, will be at the center of mediation talks that could take place by Oct. 21.

"I was relieved to see what the complaints -- allegations, call them what you want -- were," Ming said. "They're not egregious enough to get rid of me, in my opinion."

Ming, who is still chief of Forestville and continues to be paid by both districts, said the list finally shed some light on his August firing, after weeks of silence from the Russian River board.

His firing pitted Forestville's fire district against its neighbor district over the legal question of whether Russian River can get rid of a shared chief without Forestville's agreement.

"Some of the accusations are trivial, quite frankly -- seventh-grade issues," said former Forestville Fire Chief Dan Northern, who authored the agreement for the districts to share a chief and is a staunch supporter of Ming.

The two districts and Ming agreed to enter mediation and are currently selecting a mediator. Mediation must take place by Oct. 21 unless the sides agree to extend the deadline. Forestville's board and Ming hope the sides can resolve some of the issues and reinstate Ming as chief at Russian River.

Board members Frank Lambert and Nancy Jo Wood are tentatively slated to partake in the mediation on behalf of Russian River.

Lambert, who was elected to the board after 14 years as a volunteer firefighter, said he was on the committee that hired Ming and that members were aware there would be a learning curve for the veteran firefighter.

"That doesn't mean (Ming) has it inside of him to be a chief; I don't know if that's something you can teach a person," Lambert said. "We did commit it would be a learning process for him, and my feeling is I'm hoping all of this can be worked out and we can move forward."

Lambert said he hasn't yet seen the document outlining the chief's performance but was told by board president Kevin O'Shea that it was a summary of concerns they've discussed. Lambert said he knows of four or five issues that are of serious concern and expects that the remainder are small matters.

O'Shea, who with Linda Payne is subject of the nascent recall campaign, said he would not speak with a reporter without the permission of an attorney and, although given more than two weeks, did not respond before publication. Payne declined to speak about the district, deferring to O'Shea. Wood and Raymond Locke could not be reached.

With italics, quotes and exclamation points for emphasis, the document signed by Russian River's attorney David Leonard depicts Ming as repeatedly failing to follow board direction. The document also reveals an overall lack of trust between the board and firehouse staff.

The board accused Ming of divulging information from closed sessions to staff and going against district policy in several matters such as offering light-duty work to an injured employee and admitting volunteers from outside the district.

The board says the chief mismanaged finances by allowing staff to rack up high amounts of overtime pay and by giving staff permission to make certain purchases, such as a canopy structure to house its boat and a refrigerator for the station, alleging -- with exclamation points -- that the cost was unnecessarily high.

Ming also came under scrutiny for his handling of the bidding for a new firetruck that began years ago under a prior chief. The board alleged that the chief allowed a captain to convey pricing information to a preferred vendor.

The document also delves into minutiae, criticizing Ming for not acquiring a post office box for the firefighters' union, neglecting to make a staff member turn in certain paperwork, and not giving formal notice to the board about a laptop received through a grant.

Ming said the accusations show only one perspective, that many can be explained reasonably and that some represent the board's "handcuffing" management approach.

Ming this week was crafting rebuttals to each accusation in preparation for mediation and wasn't yet prepared to defend each accusation publicly.

"I had nine closed-session performance evaluations, and I walked out with no paperwork citing issues I could work on and progressively fix," Ming said. "For them to let me go, it was out of the blue."

The chief readily admitted that he also can learn a great deal from the list about how to be a better chief and communicate better with the board.

"A lot of these I'm calling 'lessons learned,' and I'm happy to work on them," Ming said, noting that he's new to the chief's position and was running districts with different policies.

The furor was fueled by the board's initial silence about their reasons for firing the veteran firefighter and the community's thirst to understand why. Yet it also stems at least in part from longstanding personality conflicts, which boiled over at meetings filled with passionate interruptions combined with pleas for civility.

"I have been really upset; to be honest, I was going to resign," said Lambert, a fourth-generation Guerneville resident and a board member for 13 years.

After missing two meetings -- the first time Lambert said he prioritized coaching eighth-grade basketball over district events -- Lambert said he resolved to continue on the board, even as his colleagues face recall campaigns, and serve on a mediation committee.

He vowed he would attend tonight's Wednesday's board meeting.

"I will be at the next meeting," Lambert said. "But it breaks my heart seeing people I've known all my life being rude."

At tonight's board meeting, Fire Capt. Ryan Lantz, president of the union representing the district's dozen firefighters, said they will request that union representatives from both districts be present for mediation.

The meeting takes place at 6 p.m. at the Russian River Fire Protection District station, 14100 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or [email protected]. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Copyright 2013 - The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

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