Dysfunctional Sacramento County fire district faces fiscal uncertainty

Herald Fire Protection reels from accusations as election nears

An embattled fire district in southern Sacramento County is stumbling toward a potentially game-changing November election, even as questions about its future and financial health loom.

The Herald Fire Protection District has resembled a smoldering island ever since the county’s grand jury called out its culture of secret meetings, hidden funds and bullying directors back in July.

The jury’s findings prompted several top-level departures and have provided plenty of fuel in the campaign for two open seats on the district’s board of directors.

“There’s an unbelievable amount of petty politics going on there,” said Don Siegalkoff, a rancher and former school-board member who started paying attention six months ago. “It just didn’t smell right.”

Siegalkoff is one of five people running for the board in the small, rural town of Herald. He joins engineer Don A. Claunch, firefighter Brian L. Hurlbut, retiree Terry Lee and attorney Timothy Reinarts.

The 68-year-old district has remained independent even as a similarly small fire district in Galt consolidated with the Cosumnes Community Services District in recent years.

Siegalkoff and Hurlbut fear their district is headed for a similar fate under current management—and they’re not alone. Last month, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors fretted over abuses that might be occurring due to lacking external control.

“If they keep going down this [road], they’re going to put the financial security of this district at risk,” said Supervisor Don Nottoli, whose district includes Herald.

“It sounds like they’re intimidating people in grocery stores,” added Supervisor Susan Peters, speaking to complaints of harassment by district officials.

The district has accepted much of the criticism leveled at it, albeit with caveats. In its seven-page response to the grand jury—approved during a special meeting on September 29—the district acknowledged that its finances are in “substantial disarray” and that it needs to update its outdated personnel policies, but also redirected shortcomings to the recently departed.

Among those fingered for blame were the district’s longtime auditor, former fire chief and his top assistant, all now gone. Even the county and recently resigned directors were cited as reasons some fixes haven’t been implemented.

Director Kevin Austin left in July for health reasons unrelated to the jury’s criticism. In August, the remaining board reportedly strong-armed Chief Chris McGranahan into resigning during closed session, following allegations that he ogled nude photos on the job and emailed them to employees.

McGranahan’s defenders claim he was unfairly proffered as a fall guy. “I believe it was totally illegal,” Hurlbut said of the chief’s ouster.

Administrative assistant Michelle Patwell and directors Dell Primasing and Dennis Johnson all followed the exited chief, vacating their positions while pointing fingers at the two directors they left behind.

According to the Lodi News-Sentinel, Primasing charged directors Lance Newhall and Stephen Stigelmayer in his resignation letter with pressuring him into votes, and for blaming McGranahan for an off-the-books checking account created before his hire.

In recent weeks, Newhall and Stigelmeyer handpicked an interim chief and filled two board vacancies with their own appointees, often hatching these and other important decisions in meetings closed to the public, say candidates Siegalkoff and Hurlbut.

“Our group is tired of it,” Siegalkoff told SN&R. “We just want to have a good fire department, where it’s what you know, not who you know.”

Time may be running out.

The district’s board recently approved an approximately $1.1 million budget for its 2014-15 fiscal year that could potentially drain its entire savings and leave it near insolvency. “They have nothing to fall back on,” said county finance director Julie Valverde.

While the total budget figure is in line with previous years’ amounts, Valverde identified curiously large expenditure spikes in three categories: services and supplies, retiree costs and contingency costs.

The district anticipates spending $46,000 on contingencies alone this year, compared with nothing in previous years.

County officials are arranging a financial audit, but stress that it will be limited in scope and unlikely to delve into any of the deeper management problems that the grand jury and local critics have identified.

For Supervisor Peters, who witnessed similar shenanigans at the Rio Linda/Elverta Community Water District while serving on a regional council, reform could take several years and multiple election cycles.

“Our fear is the district won’t be there in two years to make a difference,” replied Siegalkoff.