An embattled fire chief in Jackson is on administrative leave after public outcry for his resignation reached a fevered pitch last month.
Mounting pressure against Chief Stephen Jellie, who took the job in November 2022, led to first a reprimand, followed by a professional development strategy and finally culminating last week what could be viewed as a “soft termination” labelled as a paid “administrative leave.”
Jellie’s future with the department remains unclear even after a three-hour executive session by the Board of County Commissioners this week. For now, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Moyer assumes the reins of Teton County Fire/EMS.
Bad Fit Or Bad Hire?
Friction with the new chief began almost immediately following the hiring of Jellie upon the retirement of former Chief Brady Hansen in late 2022.
Critics claim Jellie’s management style is threatening. He has been called “tyrannical,” “confrontational” and “dysfunctional.”
Deep budget cuts jeopardizing staff and public safety, as well as communication skills that make staff fearful for their jobs, has all contributed to flagging morale, employees and volunteers say.
Jellie counters that he is merely doing what he was hired to do — trim a bloated budget — and any leadership change is bound to result in some friction.
“I was not hired to win a popularity contest,” Jellie told commissioners during a meeting Monday as he admitted the nature of budget cutting is usually painful. In addition, Jellie explained his management style as one steeped in military culture from the age of 20.
“You all knew that when you hired me,” Jellie added.
In addition to the unprecedented uproar at risk of insubordination from more than half of the 100 career and volunteer firefighters in Teton County voicing their displeasure with the chief, County Administrator Alyssa Watkins has also come under fire.
Watkins ultimately made the decision to hire Jellie despite red flags pointing to a checkered past at his previous place of employment in Ogdensburg, New York.
In his short time in the dual role of city manager and fire chief in Ogdensburg, WWNY 7 News reported that Jellie made controversial budget cuts, met with outspoken criticism, and eventually resigned but stayed on as fire head despite receiving a unanimous vote of no confidence from his own firefighters.
Jellie has since been named in at least one lawsuit stemming from his time in New York.
One Jackson Town Council member, Jessica Sell Chambers, called for Watkins to be fired.
“The county administrator should have completely handled this mess after making a really bad hire,” Sell Chambers said during a meeting of the county commissioners. “It’s time to fix this situation completely and either fire your sole employee or ask for her resignation. And she should give it.”
Deeper County Issues?
Teton County officials have not exactly done themselves any favors or inspired overwhelming confidence. Employee confidence and satisfaction has been low for nearly a decade, according to a 2019 survey of county staff that returned discouraging feedback.
The human resources department has been perennially understaffed for years. Its department director resigned recently — the third departure from that post in the last three years.
A recent whistleblower from the county’s IT department blasted his bosses after resigning in November. Keith Murley left his job as manager of information technology alleging severe mismanagement, according to a story in the Jackson Hole News&Guide.
High turnover in that department has resulted in IT work being sourced to an outside firm recently.
And finally, leaked audio from a county executive session in December allowed reporters to hear commissioners discussing their desire to hire a PR firm to help polish Jellie’s prickly manner.
Criticism For New Chief
Both Jellie and Watkins also have their advocates.
A former county engineer, Sean O’Malley, called inaccurate attacks on Watkins “vicious and overly simplistic.”
Firefighters Tyler Dunn, Chris Mommsen and Tim Harland are among a handful of staff and volunteers supporting Jellie or at least in the case of Harland, shocked at the lack of process.
“Personally, I have not found just cause for termination,” Harland said at Monday’s meeting, adding that he felt the past few weeks have bordered on a witch hunt with frightening examples of “group think” and “mutiny mentality.”
Rumors of discontent throughout Teton County’s seven fire stations boiled to the surface late last year when a previous fire chief, Willy Watsabaugh, spoke out on behalf of his former colleagues and subordinates, asking commissioners Nov. 13 to fire Jellie.
“Can we all acknowledge that terminating the newest leader of the team won’t likely solve any problems that existed for many years?” Jellie countered.
When electeds took no immediate action, dozens of firefighters packed the commission chambers beyond capacity with more than 100 more viewing online. The issue was not on the agenda, but desperate fire personnel made use of the general public comment period beginning every meeting to air their complaints.
“Who hired this guy?” Kase Paul pointblank asked commissioners at a meeting in early December. Paul’s partner is a member of the department who he said was worried about retaliation for speaking out. “Last month we came begging and you responded with a slap on the wrist. You are eroding our trust in the [board]. Get ready for the political blowback.”
Chief Called Inexperienced, Unqualified
Michael Humphrey was among many voicing their concern about Jellie’s lack of experience and qualifications.
“He doesn’t have a Firefighter 1 (certification). He doesn’t have a basic EMT. He doesn’t even have a current CPR, yet you put him in charge of the whole damn thing. I don't understand the logic in that. He has no business being a fire chief,” Humphrey said. “Not to mention you can do any number of Google searches that will tell you at his last job the people there said, ‘Don't do it, he’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.’ And you did it anyway.”
Jack Krill, a former member Station 3 in Hoback, echoed Jellie’s alleged lacking skillset.
“Jellie has no EMS credentials. He was a self-appointed fire chief [in New York]. The Shadow Mountain Fire last fall highlighted his lack of wildland fire background where he did some bizarre things. He was oblivious,” Krill said. “An unqualified, inexperienced and tyrannical chief is heading us toward catastrophe.”
Like many fearing Jellie’s retribution, Jesse Lara spoke on behalf of her husband, Cody. She claimed Jellie was responsible for “irreparable damage” and “mental warfare.”
“He does not respect what others have to say. He has a passive-aggressive behavior and unpredictable management style. I have witnessed some reprimanded for insubordination,” she said.
Others pointed to a “hostile work environment” and Jellie’s “demeaning and immature” communication style.
David Cernicek, a 23-year volunteer, worried about response time after staff reductions and the selling off of apparatus to mend the bottom line.
“At the risk of whistleblower persecution, I am here today to say a lot of this cost-cutting is not warranted,” Cernicek claimed.
Laura Coe, wife of battalion chief Brian Coe, and James Wilcox, a volunteer firefighter of two years, both lamented the process that allowed for Jellie’s hire and unchecked authority.
“The system is broken,” Coe said.
Wilcox added that, “It’s not a matter of if, but when, this community feels the impact. The process is broken.”
Chief Fires Back
Jellie sat silent throughout the bombardment during three separate meetings of the board of county commissioners in the month of December.
In response, he fired off a 1,730-word email to the commissioners stating, “I assure every member of this community that I am well qualified to be the fire chief, regardless of the recent intentional misinformation and fear-mongering tactics being employed to convince you otherwise.”
After learning of his being placed on administrative leave, Jellie showed up at the commissioners’ Jan. 8 meeting where he reiterated he would not step down.
“As it appears you are poised to make yet another decision on the future of my employment, there are a few things I would like you to know,” Jellie said in a prepared 10-minute statement he read during public comment.
Jellie said he never placed anyone in the department or the public at risk at any time. He said the board had been presented with no facts, only opinions. He closed with vowing to get better.
“I'm working hard to conform,” Jellie said. “My methods and means of communication need additional work. I apologize for not recognizing that sooner.”
County officials would not comment on the disposition of chief Jellie. Meanwhile, Watkins is undergoing a standard annual evaluation, according to a press release issued by the county Tuesday.