Government expert says Herald fire district official should ignore his dismissal

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 27, 2013 - 8:03 am

One of the architects of California's fire district law has advice for a Herald fire board member ousted by colleagues last month: Continue serving as if nothing happened.

In an unusual – and some believe illegal – maneuver, the Herald Fire Protection District board removed one of its five members, Lance Newhall, from his elected office May 15. The four other members believe they had the power to do so because the board passed its own rule in 2011 granting itself broad disciplinary powers.

But Peter Detwiler, who for decades was considered the Capitol's foremost expert on local government before retiring two years ago, disagrees. He helped craft the Fire District Law of 1987 that applies to Herald.

"(Newhall) is still a board member, and there is nothing they can do legally to prevent him from exercising the duties of his office," Detwiler said.

According to Detwiler, Newhall should show up to work or go to court if he receives trouble.

The board members are "interfering not only with the civil rights of this elected official," Detwiler said, "but they're also interfering with the civil rights of the (29.8 percent) of voters that put him in office."

Dozens of Herald residents and a Sacramento County supervisor say the removal was illegal because under state law, they contend, only a recall vote or prosecution that results from findings by a grand jury can unseat an elected official.

Newhall was re-elected in November with more votes than any other candidate on the ballot.

Fellow board directors said they kicked out Newhall because they believe he acted inappropriately at a previous meeting when he publicly chided a Fire Department employee, according to minutes from the May meeting.

Newhall has faced obstacles in his quest for legal action by the county and state.

Shelly Orio, spokeswoman for the Sacramento County district attorney, wrote in an email, "The District Attorney's Office has not received any law enforcement agency request to review possible prosecution of any aspect of the removal of director Newhall." Most actions by fire district boards do not involve criminal law, she said.

But Sgt. Jason Ramos of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department said he can't imagine what law enforcement agency would file a report on Newhall's behalf. Police deal primarily with criminal cases, he said.

A spokeswoman for state Attorney General Kamala Harris said Newhall could request an opinion from her office. Otherwise, she could not comment.

Officials who preside over elections have no power to help Newhall, either.

"We are strictly administrative," said Alice Jarboe, assistant registrar of voters for Sacramento County. "It's outside the realm of our authority to do anything."

Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson said: "It disturbs me that no one is watching. … People should care." The county District Attorney's Office has a responsibility to investigate the case even if it does not prosecute, she said.

Newhall said he hopes to reconcile with the board before any party resorts to legal action. "I fully intend to regain my seat," he said. "And whatever actions on my part it takes to do that, I plan to do."

"In the big picture, we're just a little dog," he added. "And (the district attorney has) a relatively small staff. They don't have funding. So they're going to attack the things that really count, and these little issues are going to go by the wayside unless they get pressure."

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

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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