The Public Eye

The Public Eye: Fire district ouster sparks controversy in Herald

Published: Sunday, Jun. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 27, 2013 - 8:03 am

A small fire district board in Sacramento County ousted one of its elected members last month, prompting an outcry from residents and a county supervisor who say the removal was illegal.

Herald Fire Protection District board members said they removed Lance Newhall for publicly chiding a fire department employee in April, according to minutes of the May meeting in which they dismissed him.

The controversy has created tension in Herald, an unincorporated area east of Galt where 1,184 people live, according to census data.

Dozens of people appeared at another board meeting Wednesday to support Newhall and seek his reinstatement. He also has the backing of Don Nottoli, the county supervisor whose district includes Herald and who says the board had no authority to unseat Newhall.

Newhall was re-elected in November with 29.8 percent of the vote, a higher share than any other candidate on the ballot.

In a letter, Nottoli cited state laws to explain that an elected official can only be removed one of two ways: by voters in a recall election or after facing prosecution for willful or corrupt misconduct found by a grand jury.

Nottoli said he consulted with Sacramento County Counsel John Whisenhunt, who referred him to the statutes. Whisenhunt wrote to the supervisor, "It is difficult for me to imagine what legal theory would allow for the District Board to circumvent these procedures through the adoption of (its own) by-laws."

Whisenhunt, however, said he does not provide legal representation to Herald, and it is "conceivable that there is some legal authority supporting the Board's action removing one of the its members of which I am unaware."

In May, four directors of the board found fault with Newhall's conduct at their April 23 meeting. At the April session, Newhall questioned Fire Chief Chris McGranahan regarding what he believed was inappropriate spending on items such as gas and cabinets, according to the meeting minutes.

During that exchange, Newhall told administrative assistant Michelle Patwell that her behavior was "extremely unprofessional," referencing her "smirks and little smiles and comments to the Chief," according to the minutes.

Stephen Stigelmayer, chairman of the fire district's five-person board, criticized Newhall for those comments, according to a written record.

Stigelmayer, 57, told Newhall, "Your conduct was way out of line disciplining a member like that in public. As far as I'm concerned, I'd like to publicly distance myself from you as a board member because that is the wrong thing to do. ... I feel the board should do the same."

Four of the board members then voted to oust Newhall, 53, citing a policy they adopted in September 2011: "The Board reserves the right to censure, suspend, remove or condemn actions taken by individual Board members if their actions exceed their authority or (are) a continuous disruption in the Board's function."

Stigelmayer told The Bee he believed Nottoli's letter to Newhall to be an opinion. "He could be correct, but the way I understand it, we have that right" to remove a board member.

"If we're not (acting lawfully), I don't know what will happen," Stigelmayer said.

According to Nottoli, it is unclear whether the county will pursue legal action against the board. He hopes the parties will reconcile before anyone files suit. Nottoli said he has no authority over Herald's fire district.

On Wednesday, the board convened for its first monthly meeting since Newhall's removal.

Roughly 60 people attended – a standard number since October when the community took issue with several board policies, resident Laura Keister said. No more than five residents attended the meetings before then, Keister said.

Stigelmayer and two other board directors, Kevin Austin and Dell Primasing, sat at a fold-up table facing a sea of fold-up chairs in Hendrickson Hall. Vice Chairman Dennis Johnson did not attend the meeting.

According to Keister, the hall and an adjacent barn are the only two communal spaces in Herald that locals can rent for events. They're booked every night, she said, and the October uproar began when the board decided to raise rental fees. Newhall said he did not necessarily oppose raising the fees, but he thought the board did so in a "secretive manner."

The board called on Pat Maple, 61, for the second comment from the public. Maple said a recall or grand jury alone could remove a representative from office.

"I'm saying to you that you made a mistake, and I'd like to see you rectify it," Maple said to the board.

A man in the audience then said, "Yes! Yes!" The hall boomed with applause.

Skip Nicolaus, 68, stood up moments later. "You're not a private club," he said. "You're gonna take my vote away from me? You can't do that."

Stigelmayer told the crowd he would respond later to Nottoli's letter, which he had not yet seen. Donning a black baseball cap and drooping his chin in his palm, Stigelmayer sat with most of his face covered.

Ironically, Newhall during his first term of office approved the board policy that led to his removal. He said he hadn't reviewed the policy thoroughly before its adoption and later said he never would have voted for it.

After last week's meeting, Austin said the board had a responsibility to answer the public's questions.

"They just want to see more transparency," Stigelmayer said. "And I'm OK with that."

Call The Bee's Jeffrey Dastin, (916) 321-1037.

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