Lawsuit Claims Two Teton County Commissioners Conspired To Oust Fire Chief

A Jackson resident has filed a lawsuit against two Teton County Commissioners, claiming they conspired to get former Fire Chief Stephen Jellie fired and wants them removed from the commission.

LW
Leo Wolfson

February 19, 20249 min read

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Jackson resident Tim Rieser believes two of his county commissioners should be removed from office over the controversial ousting of the county’s fire chief.

Rieser is suing for “expedited removal” of Teton County Commissioners Luther Propst and Greg Epsetin, alleging breach of county policies and state statutes, abuse of office, criminal activity and refusal or neglect to perform their required duties in handling public complaints made against former Teton County Fire Chief Stephen Jellie.

In a 79-page civil lawsuit filed Friday, Rieser accuses Propst and Epstein of knowingly manipulating public meetings and using other backdoor methods to help fuel a campaign to oust Jellie.

“Teton County leadership is infected by corrupt officials,” Rieser told Cowboy State Daily. “Propst and Epstein, with the assistance of the county attorney's office and the local newspaper, broke numerous Wyoming statutes, county regulations and policy to eject a county employee. That's simply not legal.”

In total, Rieser accuses the commissioners of violating county policy, their own board rules, five laws and the Wyoming Constitution.

Last Thursday, Jellie received $150,000 in a severance agreement he had come to with the county. He officially resigned from the job Jan. 31.

“The sheer number of laws they violated, and the viciousness of their vendetta, is breathtaking,” Rieser said. “They broke their vows and bond of office and need to be removed, or resign. As the size of the termination payment clearly testifies, they know they screwed up.”

‘I Have Concerns …’

Rieser said he gleaned information from Jellie for the lawsuit, but did not file the complaint on the former chief’s behalf. He also said he has been friends with Propst for more than a decade.

“I will always defend anyone being abused by people in positions of power,” Rieser said. “If we have a corruption issue in our government, I don't care who winds up the defendant, but they will.”

Neither Propst nor Epstein responded to Cowboy State Daily’s requests for comment about the lawsuit.

State Rep. Andrew Byron, R-Jackson, a volunteer firefighter who worked under Jellie, offered Cowboy State Daily his thoughts. He believes the issues with Jellie were not structural or inherited, but with Jellie himself.

He also doesn’t believe Rieser’s lawsuit is productive.

“I have concerns as a lawmaker with how it will appear to the rest of the state,” Byron said. “It will certainly draw attention to the issue that has already been put to rest.”

In his complaint, Rieser relies on the content of public meetings and result of Jellie’s termination to make most of his argument. He does not provide any emails or other communications made by the commissioners or other county officials showing direct proof of an organized campaign or conspiracy to remove Jellie.

What Happened?

Jellie first took the job as Teton County’s fire chief in November 2022.

In his complaint, Rieser said prior to Jellie taking the job, there was already a known rift between volunteers and career firefighters, tension between and among the county commissioners and tension with commissioners and the county administrator. Some of these issues were highlighted in a 2021 report conducted by an outside group for the county, most notably pointing out the major budget and staff retention issues impacting the fire department.

In his complaint, Rieser said Jellie was unfairly targeted and fell victim to a department with “serious internal issues in communications, willingness to be commanded, resistance to change, hierarchical issues” that had been documented prior to his arrival.

Over the course of three commission meetings in November, December and January, dozens of firefighters, their families and supporters called for Jellie’s removal.

They spoke of declining morale in the face of swift operational changes Jellie orchestrated, which they saw as reducing emergency services for the sake of minimal cost savings.

Many also took issue with Jellie’s communication style, which they alleged at times could be “tyrannical,” “confrontational” and “dysfunctional.”

‘Protesters’ Rounded Up

Rieser believes the airing of these grievances was an inappropriate use of public forum without any control, and purposely used by Propst and Epstein to turn their fellow commissioners against the fire chief.

“Their oath of office required them to dispatch their duties with “fidelity,” which encompasses every possible iteration of trust, loyalty, ethical purity, faithfulness, morality, devotion to duties and obligations, honesty, and much more,” Rieser writes in the complaint. “In their zeal to influence other commissioners to vote their way, Propst and Epstein facilitated the destruction of Stephen Jellie’s employment, reputation, and career, and in so doing, recklessly violated every possible meaning of the word fidelity.”

Rieser accuses Propst and Epstein of rounding up “protestors” to show up at public meetings to speak against Jellie.

He also says they and Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery tipped off staff at the Jackson Hole News & Guide about critical information pertaining to the Jellie issues it wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Rieser also asserts that even those who supported Jellie’s removal opposed the way they were handling the situation, providing a December email from Austin Sessions, president of FD/EMS Local 5067. Sessions had been making the point that the channels provided for levying complaints in Teton are ineffective.

“I believe it is wrong that they are asking us to stand up and state our complaints in public instead of following the policy laid out by them,” Rieser writes in the email.

Byron said Teton County severely lacks a human resources department he believes could have smoothed out the Jellie situation and led to a better hire initially. If he had a personal issue with Jellie, Byron said, it would have been Jellie he would have had to report it to first.

“I think the public process is different (here) because there’s no other outside department to report issues with,” he said. “We have a public process and a public comment period for a reason.”

Executive Sessions

In his complaint, Rieser said the county also held a number of executive sessions used to “explore, plot, and strategize the demise, termination, and professional destruction of” Jellie.

In one executive session, Rieser said commissioners were played a recorded audio clip of a meeting where Jellie told an employee she could be fired after she expressed concerns about new policies that could take away staff pay. Jellie said this comment was taken out of context.

In his complaint, Rieser provides examples of Propst bringing up comments during public meetings that he said originated from executive sessions with Jellie. Under executive session rules in Wyoming, no information from an executive session is to be disclosed in public.

Specifically, Propst accused Jellie at a public meeting of saying he would change his management style overnight, a comment Rieser said was in reference to a remark Jellie made during an executive session.

Rieser also accuses the News & Guide newspaper of assisting with the pressure campaign against Jellie because of its coverage of the issue.

Pressure Campaign

Under Teton County’s governmental structure, only the county administrator can hire or fire an employee of the county, while the commissioners can only make recommendations.

By Jan. 4, Rieser said Propst and Epstein had won the other commissioners over, who came out of an executive session that day to recommend terminating Jellie or putting him on administrative leave.

Just two days before, Jackson Town Councilmember Jessica Chambers had called for both Jellie’s and Teton County Administrator Alyssa Watkins’ termination at a January commissioner meeting.

On Jan. 4, Watkins put Jellie on 22 days of leave before the county came to a $150,000 termination payment agreement with the former fire chief.

Rieser said the commissioners failed to properly provide public notice for their executive sessions by attaching them to a public meeting as required by law, and that Jellie was provided no opportunity to make the executive sessions at which he was the topic of discussion a public hearing, also provided by state law.

In his complaint, Rieser said Watkins countered the second point by saying Jellie already had the opportunity for a public hearing, so the law did not apply.

Many of the comments made against Jellie were made during the public comment period of the commissioners’ meetings.

Rieser describes the commissioners’ silence during these comments as “tacit approval to that disparagement.”

“It would be difficult to randomly throw open any Wyoming statute or county regulation, or the Bible for that matter, and not find some basic tenant of law or decency they did not violate in their quest to destroy Stephen Jellie: fellow human, county employee, husband, father, community member … and Fire Chief,” Rieser writes in the complaint.

What’s Next?

Wyoming law states that any county commissioner can be removed from office if found guilty by a judge for refusing or neglecting without just cause to perform any of his required duties or knowingly commit any act against the office oath and bond.

A judge must hold a bench trial on the charges within 30 days of a complaint being filed.

“Propst and Epstein need to be held accountable for the abuse of power and position that they undertook to destroy their own county employee,” Rieser told Cowboy State Daily. “I trust the court to adjudicate this appropriately.”

Asimilar request for removal is underway in Sheridan County for four members of the county commission there for allegedly failing their duty to appoint a new county commissioner.

In his complaint, Rieser said he intends to file a follow-up complaint with Gov. Mark Gordon’s office to request Propst and Epstein’s immediate removal from office.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.

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LW

Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter