When I went to work for Guerneville’s weekly newspaper many years ago there was a recall campaign under way to boot the entire Russian River Fire District board of directors out of office. It was a big story. River residents jammed the firehouse for the monthly fire board meetings. When it was all over, the recall campaign had succeeded in removing all five directors from office.

Frank Robertson column photo

Frank Robertson

“Total recall” said the newspaper headline (borrowing the title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie) when the votes were tallied.

Removing an entire district board of directors in one fell swoop had never happened before (as far as I know) in Sonoma County. It made history, and it happened right here in river city.

Since then my memories of the river fire district are mostly about its directors, chiefs and residents clashing over money and power on a small-town scale. The recall nearly 30 years ago was over the directors’ firing of a popular district fire chief, Mo Fitch.

 The river district’s most recent recall election five years ago also involved directors terminating a popular chief, Max Ming. That recall ousted two directors, and a third one resigned before the vote.

Ming was reinstated and then had to resign a couple of years later for reasons that have never been made publicly clear. Ming’s exit was maybe number 10 or 12 on the long list of former Russian River fire chiefs.

Over the years, firing the chief became almost like a ritual legacy in the Russian River Fire Protection District. One of the directors who fired Max Ming was Kevin O’Shea, a former Russian River District Chief who later became fire chief in Bodega Bay. O’Shea eventually returned to live in the River Fire District and serve on its board of directors. He was a hometown guy. Everyone knew Kevin. Unfortunately it was a familiarity that had bred some contempt.

So when river voters booted O’Shea off the district board five years ago it seemed as though the system was working — the people had spoken and democracy along the river was alive and well. Guerneville voters had removed some more fire district directors, retained a chief and life was good.

That’s why I’m worried about not having a Russian River Fire Protection District board of directors that we can throw out of office when the mood hits.

If this proposed district annexation takes place, the old Russian River Fire Protection District will cease to exist. Residents of the old district will be absorbed into the larger Sonoma County Fire District, whose board of directors will run the show.

No river fire district? No more nasty small town recall elections to toss out directors when they do something alarming like fire another chief? What’s the world coming to?

There are obvious practical reasons for annexing the smaller Russian River Fire Protection District into a larger entity. Better fire and medical emergency services, shared resources, greater efficiency, less duplication. What’s not to like?

Only this: if the River Fire District gets annexed into the bigger Sonoma County Fire District, it will be governed by seven new people who live over there somewhere, in Santa Rosa and Windsor, with a core constituency along the Highway 101 corridor. I’m sure those district directors are all fine upstanding citizens, but what have they got in common with the lower Russian River and our small rural fire district under the redwoods?

Won’t we really become just a small blip on their radar, a little fish in a bigger pond, to mix some metaphors? It seems like a bunch of out-of-towners will be running our firehouse. Even if they’re doing a good job, “They aren’t us,” I can hear people saying.

“Loss of local control is a valid concern,” said Jason Weaver, the River Fire District’s current board president, regarding the dissolution of the River Fire District. “The fire department is part of the lower river’s culture,” said Weaver. “We’re aware of that.”

But maybe this annexation will be an appropriate grand finale. The Russian River Fire District Directors’ last official act may be to fire themselves.

River Fire District Directors will discuss the annexation plan next week, Aug. 14 at its regular meeting starting at 6 p.m. in the firehouse on Armstrong Woods Road.

Frank Robertson is a member of the Sonoma West Publishers staff.

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