An impassioned and sometimes rowdy audience pummeled the Russian River Fire Protection District board Wednesday for its decision to fire the chief the district shares with Forestville.
After more than an hour of public comment by nearly 50 residents and area firefighters, the board postponed appointing an interim chief to replace Max Ming, a veteran Forestville firefighter who has run both fire districts since December 2011.
Yet board members remained silent about their sudden decision to dismiss Ming, whom many called a popular and successful leader. Toward the end of the meeting, board chairman Kevin O'Shea, who served as chief nearly 30 years ago, said the board was instructed by an attorney to refrain from making any comment about what he described as a personnel matter and to avoid committing to any action.
"It doesn't make it nice and it doesn't make it easy ... it doesn't help you understand and it ties our hands," O'Shea said of the advice.
Ming was fired in an Aug. 5 letter delivered in person by O'Shea and newest board member Raymond Locke. The letter stated simply that Ming's services were no longer needed.
The move shocked Ming as well as Russian River department firefighters, who responded with a letter from the union representing the department's 12 firefighters declaring their unanimous support of Ming. Ming, too, sent a letter to the board, expressing his desire to work out any differences.
After Wednesday's meeting, Ming said he still did not know why he was dismissed.
"It's comforting to hear from that many people here to support us. Now the ball is in their court," Ming said of the board.
More than 100 people filled the Guerneville fire station's apparatus bay garage, an unprecedented showing for the district's monthly meetings.
Margaret Kennett, owner of Fern Grove Cottages on River Road, asked members of the audience in support of Ming to stand up, causing nearly every person in the room to rise from their chairs.
The board took a heavy beating over what speakers described as apparent dysfunction and meddling.
Guerneville resident Ginger Hamilton, who works for the Windsor Fire Protection District, told the board members they appeared to be overstepping their duties.
"That's what chiefs do; they run the department," Hamilton said. "The board has no place in day-to-day activities. I want to ask you to reconsider your decision (to dismiss Ming)."
Forestville firefighters joined the crowd, attesting to their confidence in Ming and railing against the Russian River board's decision to fire him.
"I want board members to know you crushed people's morale," Forestville Assistant Chief Dave Franceschi said of Russian River staff. "You want to see how a good board operates, come to Forestville."
The audience, joined by Russian River board member Nancy Jo Wood, erupted in applause and cheers.
Still unclear was how the Russian River board's decision could affect its contract with the Forestville Fire Protection District. The Districts in December 2011 started a seven-year agreement to share a fire chief and each is responsible for half of Ming's salary, though Ming remains a Forestville employee.
The Forestville district cannot afford all of Ming's pay, a district attorney noted in a letter to the Russian River fire district, adding that it must continue reimbursing Forestville for half of Ming's pay.