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Ousted Russian River fire director aims for fall ballot

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Eighty-two percent of voters in the Russian River Fire Protection District elected to recall former director Linda Payne from the district board last spring.

But she refuses to surrender.

Payne is asking Guerneville-area residents to vote her back onto the board this fall in repudiation of what she contends was a union-orchestrated maneuver to make room for people favorable to firefighter interests.

“I don’t think ‘might’ should win out over ‘right,’ ” she said, “and, if it does, ‘right’ has to go down fighting.”

But given a race even Payne concedes will go to the other guy — incumbent Kyle O’Connor — her decision to contest his seat and, thus, force an election is drawing bewilderment and criticism.

“It’s going to cost the district, by her doing this, a minimum of $6,000. She’s well aware of that,” said board president Mark Emmett, who was elected April 8, on the same ballot with which Payne and past board president Kevin O’Shea were successfully targeted for recall. “It’s a strange deal.”

Payne, then vice president, and O’Shea were voted out of office in the tumult that followed the board’s August 2013 decision to dismiss Fire Chief Max Ming, whose services were shared by the 20-square-mile district and neighboring Forestville Fire Protection District. Ming was later reinstated, but his ouster consolidated dissatisfaction with the Russian River district board over a variety of issues, leading to the recalls of Payne and O’Shea .

Payne, who filed paperwork for November’s ballot earlier this month, objected to being included in the recall in part because Ming was discharged from his duties by unanimous vote of the five-member board.

She also took issue with the recall because both she and O’Shea would have faced re-election this fall in any case, sparing the district about $22,000 to finance the special, mid-term recall election.

But two of the four board members who voted with her later resigned, including Frank Lambert Jr., who relinquished his seat less than halfway through his four-year term and thus could be replaced only until the next election cycle came round.

O’Connor was appointed to Lambert’s seat through the end of this year and would have been “elected” to the remaining two years on the term without an actual vote had Payne not filed to run, thus prompting a public balloting.

Though Payne has continued to attend district board meetings and take part in public comment, Fire Capt. Ryan Lantz, president of the firefighters union, said the few people with whom he’s talked about it “seem caught off-guard” by Payne’s decision to insert herself in the election.

Both he and Emmett, and Payne herself, said the board appeared to be moving forward beyond the rancor of the past and making progress, including an improved fire service rating that should reduce insurance premiums for district residents, Emmett said.

But Payne said there may be those who are rethinking the recall at this point. In any case, controversy over the election may increase public interest and engagement in operations.

“I still believe in serving my community and serving my district,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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