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With two of its members facing a recall, the embattled board of the Russian River Fire Protection District on Friday reinstated the chief it summarily fired in August.

It was the latest turn in a drama that has roiled the district for months, since the board unexpectedly and without explanation dismissed popular 29-year fire services veteran Max Ming.

Board Chairman Kevin O'Shea, who with board member Linda Payne is the target of the recall effort, announced the decision with the board's attorney at his side Friday, saying Ming would return under an amended agreement with the Forestville Fire Protection District.

The two districts share a chief and Ming, since being fired from Russian River, has remained at the helm in Forestville, which had protested his firing and pushed for mediation to resolve the issue.

Ming was on vacation in Las Vegas and not at Friday's meeting.

Given the months of emotional argument, the audience of about 80 reacted to O'Shea's announcement in an unexpectedly muted manner, with just a brief smattering of applause. That appeared to be partly because the board would not disclose what had been amended in the agreement that governs Ming's employment, saying he and the two absent board members, Nancy Jo Wood and Frank Lambert, had yet to sign it.

"You can't say anything about it until everyone signs it, and then it's a done deal?" exclaimed Lloyd Guccione, a leader in the recall bid. "We're in the dark, and this is our district."

Also accounting for the quiet reaction was, perhaps, that the crowd was still caught in the angry discussion that had preceded the closed-session vote. From the meeting's first minutes, community members called on O'Shea and Payne to resign and demanded that the vote be postponed until Wood and Lambert were present.

"I think it's morally wrong that the board does not resign," said one speaker, Margaret Kennett, standing in the Guerneville fire station garage where the special meeting was held.

"Your relationship with the community is so fractured that I don't believe you can serve it anymore," said Ginger Hamilton.

"This is just outrageous; it just should not happen," said John Uniack, noting that the special meeting had been scheduled two days after Wednesday's regular meeting had been canceled without public notice.

O'Shea, a former Guerneville fire chief himself, said that an agreement reached through mediation talks about the issue with the Forestville district needed to be ratified.

"We're not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes," he said.

Payne, before the three board members went to vote, said all her decisions have been for the good of the district and she pushed back at critics.

"You can say what you want about me, you can say what you want to me," Payne said, "but none of you have any idea who I am."

The riverside community has been in turmoil since Ming's firing.

Firefighters from both fire districts and local residents have rallied around the popular chief.

Normally quiet district board meetings have become like Friday's, angry forums where residents called for Ming to be reinstated and for board members to be recalled or step down. Friday's, in fact, was smaller and more restrained than recent meetings have been.

O'Shea and Payne largely have kept silent throughout, although Payne stated publicly she would not resign and the board produced a lengthy list of its complaints against Ming. Those included that he had mishandled confidential documents, delayed getting gutters cleaned and allowed staff to rack up too much overtime.

After Friday's vote, Hamilton stood and said to the board: "I want to thank you, I think you did the right thing."

Herman Hernandez, who had demanded the meeting be postponed, said "I feel good about the reinstatement, but what a shame that it had to go through community pressure and all the expense of it" for lawyers and mediation costs and a potential recall.

"It showed that they were listening to the community," said Robbi Ernst. A regular attendee of the usually sparsely attended board meetings, he urged the audience to remain involved.

The Guerneville fire station is the headquarters of the Russian River Fire Protection District, which covers about 20 square miles of Sonoma County along the river.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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