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Firefighters’ families rally to oust Jackson fire chief

Jackson Hole Wyoming


By Sophia Boyd-Fliegel
Jackson Hole Daily
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — The families of firefighters added Friday to a wave of calls to oust Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Stephen Jellie.

“I see stressed out spouses and kids because of the leadership that has gone on in this organization,” said Jesse Lara, wife of Cody Lara, a career firefighter and EMT. “You owe the people in this department an explanation as to why you trust this man who has completely mangled his first year as chief.”

Speaking to county commissioners, Lara stood in front of 13 other partners and spouses at a county meeting that was held Friday since this Monday is a holiday. About 37 people also joined online, many with the label of “fire department supporter.”

For the second time in a week, commissioners went into a closed-door executive session to discuss the chief following a round of public calls for his resignation.

Jellie has been in the hot seat for months on issues of both operational changes and the way he communicates. Jellie said he’s committed to softening the way he talks to his staff. But he has stood by decisions to, for example, spread the same number of staff across more stations.

After about an hour and a half, the board exited the executive session and took no action Friday.

The board tightened oversight on the chief this past week after two dozen firefighters showed up Monday to ask for his resignation, citing what they said were unsafe policy decisions and threatening behavior. A recording showed he told one employee that she and her peers “could be fired” for asking questions about overtime. Jellie said that was a reprimand, not a threat.

One fire captain, Tyler Dunn, spoke in favor of the chief’s leadership last Monday. But no supporters showed Friday.

After Friday’s meeting, Jellie said he had no plans to resign.

“I’m 100% committed to this community,” he said.

Jellie has weathered the criticism, apologizing for some things and defending himself against other accusations. He said he wasn’t trying to create a “Jellie group and a no Jellie group.”

This is not the first time a department under Jellie’s management has become a public spectacle.

Three people brought up news coverage of his past employment in Ogdensburg, New York, where Jellie says he cut firefighter positions when he served as both the city manager and the fire chief to save the city from bankruptcy.

This year, however, the Ogdensburg City Council paid $519,680 in back pay to firefighters after a protracted legal battle, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. A New York news station also reported in November that the city paid a law firm more than $94,000 over three years to handle the dispute.

Jellie said that those costs were outweighed by the money saved on positions.

Though both have financial issues, he said, the situation in New York is far from that in Jackson Hole.

“Do I see parallels? Of course,” he said. “But the communities are entirely different.”

For Kase Paul, whose wife is a firefighter, Jellie’s history of struggling with firefighters is glaring.

“Do you guys hate firefighters?” he asked commissioners on Friday. “Did a fire truck run over your puppy when you were a kid? Like what’s going on here? Who hired this guy?”

Laura Coe, wife of Battalion Chief Brian Coe, told commissioners that while she appreciated their hours of closed-door discussions about the chief, overseeing his behavior wasn’t their job.

“It should have been taken care of at a different level,” she said.

Coe and Paul stopped short of calling out Jellie’s boss by name.

County Administrator Alyssa Watkins hired Jellie and oversees him. Though the fire department is funded by the town of Jackson and Teton County, Watkins has sole hiring and firing responsibilities. She did not respond to requests for comment by press time. She has previously declined to comment on personnel matters.

Last Monday, commissioners voted 3-2 to send a letter to Fire/EMS staff outlining how they planned to help Jellie correct his behavior and communication. The four-point plan included professional development for the chief and a new advisory committee of firefighters to review his decisions.

On Tuesday, though, commissioners voted 4-1 to change the fire department’s organizational structure, creating a supervisor over each fire station. They voted to do so without first forming, or consulting, the newly recommended advisory committee. Luther Propst voted no.

The move offended some within the department, according to public comment.

“If we can’t get you to fire Jellie or at least put him on administrative leave,” Paul said, “at least uphold the promises you made in that letter.”

Among county commissioners, Propst has shown the most hesitation in trusting the chief to move forward.

In an email Thursday night, Jackson Town Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers was the first of any elected official to formally ask for the chief’s resignation.

Jackson Hole Fire/EMS is jointly funded by the town and county, although the county has direct oversight through a joint operating agreement.

Sell Chambers told the Jackson Hole Daily that she had spoken with Jellie in the past at a director’s breakfast on Oct. 26.

“The one conversation we had was about supporting people in stressful situations,” she said, referring to a peer support system.

Sell Chambers was later disturbed, she said, to read in the paper about Jellie’s behavior toward staff.

“The conduct described and documented is intolerable and inexcusable,” she wrote in her letter calling for his resignation.

Jellie said he had no comment on Sell Chambers’ letter.

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