• Fuming at Jellie, critics also press county to fire administrator Watkins.
By Sophia Boyd-Fliegel
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — Unrest over Teton County emergency response leadership is growing, and now gunning for the top.
Seven weeks after a former fire chief first called for the current chief’s resignation, the drumbeat is growing louder for county commissioners to fire not only Stephen Jellie — but also Jellie’s boss, County Administrator Alyssa Watkins.
“The county administrator should have completely handled this mess after making a really bad hire,” Jackson Town Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers told commissioners Tuesday morning.
“It’s time to fix this situation completely and either fire your sole employee or ask for her resignation. And she should give it,” Sell Chambers said in front of a crowd of mostly firefighters, their family members and sheriff’s office employees.
Minutes later, two of the county’s three fire battalion chiefs rose to speak about the erosion of trust and services under Jellie’s leadership, the latest in an extraordinary series of airing of grievances by firefighters and their supporters in public meetings.
Sell Chambers — who was not speaking for the town council but only for herself — was one of several people who in recent weeks have stood up and interrogated county leaders about how the chief was hired, primarily citing his short, rocky tenure as fire chief and city manager in Ogdensburg, New York.
The county chambers were full beyond capacity Tuesday, and more than 100 others logged into the meeting via Zoom. Audience members included Town Councilor Jim Rooks and state Rep. Andrew Byron, a volunteer firefighter. Sheriff Matt Carr also attended, in solidarity with firefighters.
Uproar about the fire chief was not on the agenda. The meeting was the third time in less than a month that a group of firefighters and their family members turned out in force during public comment to ask for change, citing threats of firing and unsafe practices.
Tuesday was the first public meeting, though, where critics explicitly called for Watkins’ ouster. After closing public comment, commissioners went into executive session. As is custom with public comment, commissioners largely did not respond beyond thanking audience members for showing up and commenting.
Afterward, Watkins went into another meeting and did not return a call for comment. She previously has said she is uncomfortable speaking to the press and places a high priority on privacy for herself and her staff.
Not all the focus during the 40 minutes was on the administrator.
“Ensuring recruitment or retention of all our members will not always equal efficiency,” said Battalion Chief Matt Redwine, a 19-year member of Jackson Hole Fire/EMS.
Redwine, who was visibly nervous speaking at the podium, spoke beside another battalion chief, Brian Coe.
Coe described a joint town-county department scrambling to pick up pieces of shattered mental health, with members “holding on by a thread” and many who had drafted resignations being begged to stay.
Besides internal issues, Redwine said external relationships were suffering. The chief effectively had barred leaders in the organization from going to meetings across the state, he said.
“The foundation of this organization and our ability to protect the community have never been more threatened than they are today,” Redwine said.
Reached by phone after the meeting, Jellie said he wouldn’t comment generally on the discussion. He had been conducting captain interviews Tuesday morning and did not sit through the daggers in person, as he has previously. He then declined to answer specific questions over the phone and asked them to be put in writing. He did not respond to an email before press time.
After the meeting, Redwine said Jellie’s communication in the past few weeks had been as clear as it’s ever been but was still “completely dysfunctional.”
Emails to Jellie asking for an emergency meeting with fire leadership had been politely responded to, but such a meeting never was scheduled, Redwine said.
Communication seems to be the common thread in complaints against Jellie, which started to pile up in emails to administration and the chief starting last spring. Commissioners are mulling hiring a PR consultant but haven’t looked at a contract.
“Our leadership needs a plan,” Redwine said. “We’re making decisions by the seat of our pants, not following dispatch protocol.”
Sheriff Carr was sitting in the meeting alongside four other deputies in uniform. Carr emailed his staff yesterday to let them know he planned to attend in uniform “to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in the fire world.”
The sheriff, who started out as a volunteer ambulance driver and EMT, wrote that he was “dismally disappointed” in the way the commissioners and staff had handled the situation and said it speaks to “larger issues” in political leadership.
Carr declined further comment when reached by phone after the meeting.
Prior to Watkins’ hiring of Jellie, news stations in upstate New York documented the dramatic fallout from Jellie’s two years, punctuated by deep cuts to the fire department which he said were essential for city finances. Public meetings became unruly, even violent, against Jellie, and an arbitrator recently ordered payouts to firefighters. Shots between the union and town leadership spilled into social media and a defamation lawsuit against Jellie.
While outcry is spilling over into the public setting, Teton County commissioners are continuing a series of private talks. Closing the door to talk personnel has become a mainstay on commissioners’ agenda.
Looking forward, not all firefighters are despondent, said Austin Sessions, president of the Jackson chapter of the International Association of Firefighters.
A letter from commissioners in late December called for more oversight on Jellie’s decisions — including potential punishment — and the formation of an advisory council to air dissent on internal changes.
That seemed like a “good compromise,” Sessions said, “if everything is implemented.”
So far, though, that hasn’t happened. Without change, the public can expect more of the same, he said, though the union hadn’t been alone in organizing public comment in recent meetings.
According to a founding member of the Moran fire station, this is not the first time firefighters have struggled under an ill-suited leader.
Paul Cote, former Fire/EMS volunteer and more recently county facilities manager, talked about the challenge of merging Jackson Hole Fire with Teton County EMS in 2004.
“We made a mistake, and we found ourselves in the very same position that you are in today,” he said. It took the organization a year to move the leader out of that position, he said, and then “literally it took us a decade to recover.”
What’s next for county leaders remains unclear.
Commissioner Newcomb said after the meeting that he was still gravely concerned about what he saw as a lack of process, both for firefighters and for Watkins and Jellie.
“I don’t think any staff should be on trial for a lack of that process,” Newcomb said.
Personnel complaints usually go through the human resources department, which is without a director after the third HR chief in three years left in December.