Tension continues to trouble the Herald Fire Protection District three weeks after an ousted board member regained his seat.
Several residents of the small community northeast of Galt are pursuing legal action against three board members who removed their elected colleague Lance Newhall on May 15 with no lawful basis, they say. Newhall was reinstated June 26 after weeks of controversy.
A board meeting Wednesday night highlighted other contentious issues. Newhall said items he wishes to discuss are rarely placed on board agendas. Members of the Herald Area Civic Association, an activist group, said the Fire Department has failed to provide financial transparency.
Michelle Patwell, the Fire Department's administrative assistant, denied this, saying she responds to every public records request despite the voluminous, at times unreasonable, demand.
The activists pointed to revenue the fire district collects from renting out a barn and Herald's Hendrickson Hall to the public. The revenue, deposited in a petty cash fund outside the fire district's budget and totaling up to $3,000, became an issue when the board considered raising rental fees in October 2012.
"All transactions of revenue have to be reported to the county," said Darlene Westphal, a Herald resident. "The point is you cannot take public revenue and put it in an association account of farmers and merchants. You can't do that."
Newhall, among others, requested an audit of the petty cash fund at the meeting.
Fire Chief Chris McGranahan said he approached Sacramento County officials about the issue several years ago. They explained among other complications that renting buildings did not constitute a health and safety service, so it was unclear if it should be part of the Fire Department's budget, McGranahan said.
He said he would request the county's opinion again this month and that legal counsel could audit the fund.
The petty cash fund is only one example of Herald's tug of war over public records. Civic association President Jackie Barton said her group sent a letter with 14 questions regarding public information Feb. 20 to the Fire Department.
Receiving no response, the civic association sent another letter March 7. A back-and-forth with the fire district board's lawyer, where Barton had to clarify her questions, then delayed answers until May, she said.
Patwell said, "We have an open-door policy. If you want to know something, come in and ask."
Save one response she's waiting to get from county officials, Patwell said she's handed the community every public record requested, including: the district office budgets for four years, petty cash ledgers for two years, every preliminary budget since 2008, every monthly budget since 2009, minutes from board meetings, information on board resolutions and the insurance cost of Herald's barn.
"They have a personal vendetta for me and the fire chief," Patwell said. "Multiple times I've been blamed for taking money from schoolchildren and being a disgrace to the community. It's just too much."
Others in the community remain frustrated or have lost interest. Twenty-six people attended Wednesday's board meeting down from nearly 60 in June when Newhall's removal angered the public.
When Westphal asked for an explanation of small items purchased by the Fire Department, Herald resident Linda Hurlbut took issue.
"You're nitpicking such things that you can't get to the business of the board." she said. "(The board) under-spends your budget and you're worrying about paper towels?"
Call The Bee's Jeffrey Dastin, (916) 321-1037.