New town councilors sworn in

Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson and Town Councilors Jim Rooks and Jessica Sell Chambers applaud after being sworn in to the Jackson Town Council by Judge Melissa Owens at Town Hall in January. Chambers and Rooks engaged in a terse email exchange last week regarding Rooks’ absence from several council meetings.

Two Jackson town councilors exchanging jabs over email in the last 10 days has revealed a rift between them that the mayor and other councilors hope won’t interfere with the council’s ability to smoothly conduct town business.

The exchange resulted in one councilor, Jessica Sell Chambers, stating that another, Councilor Jim Rooks, had “threatened” her. Rooks, meanwhile, countered that he feels he’s being “bullied” by Chambers and that she is trying to get him removed from the council to be replaced by one of her friends.

The emails — included at the end of this story — and subsequent action taken at the last regular council meeting by Chambers, also prompted the Town Council to look at how the town handles a councilor who intends to be absent for multiple consecutive regular meetings. Town staff will bring options for councilors to consider and deliberate beginning at an October meeting.

The exchange began with a Sept. 17 email from Chambers to the council and other select town staffers — Town Manager Larry Pardee, Town Attorney Lea Colasuonno, and Assistant Town Manager Roxanne Robinson. In her original email, Chambers said she intended to raise the issue of procedure regarding missed meetings at their meeting the following Monday, Sept. 20.

Jessica Sell Chambers 2020 mug

Jessica Sell Chambers

Chambers singled out Rooks, who along with Chambers was one of two new councilors elected following a contentious election season last year. Rooks had missed at least four consecutive regular council meetings. In her email, Chambers said she would like to have policies in place for “unexplained/unexcused” absences, adding that if “one of us simply didn’t show up to work for a month without indicating a clear overall plan and duration of our absence, we would be terminated.”

Further, Chambers wrote in the Sept. 17 email, “being absent is not the issue,” but rather, “the issue is the manner in which the absence has been unaddressed.” She stated in the email and in subsequent interviews that Rooks should have communicated better with his fellow council members and his constituents in the public in alerting them to his upcoming meeting absences. Chambers also questioned how Rooks was able to make informed decisions on liquor license votes at an Aug. 24 special meeting after missing the prior day’s presentations by applicants. Rooks attended virtually and said he was at an intensive pain-management clinic in Maryland with limited access to electronics and apologized for not being present the prior day. Chambers also questioned that in her initial email, asking why Rooks was able to respond to text messages from her and check his email “if he doesn’t have access to electronics.”

At the Sept. 20 meeting, Chambers asked town staff to bring forth policies or ordinances for the council to consider regarding extended absences from regular meetings, and the proper notification by councilors expecting to miss time, a motion which passed unanimously. She asked for those items of consideration to be brought at the Oct. 18 meeting, though that timeline has been accelerated by staff to an Oct. 11 special workshop.

The council had discussed missed meetings and consecutive absences earlier in the summer, so Pardee confirmed at the Sept. 20 meeting that staff had already spent time working on crafting the language.

Last Wednesday, two days after that Sept. 20 council meeting, Rooks responded to Chambers’ initial email, setting off a rapid-fire exchange of emails — which quickly became personal — between the two over the next few hours. Rooks explained his whereabouts in his initial response, and also clarified that he had informed Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson, Pardee and Robinson prior to his departure that he would be absent from upcoming meetings. Mayor Morton Levinson confirmed that fact to the News&Guide.

Rooks, who suffered critical injuries in 2019 when he was hit by a motorist while bicycling, went on in his response to explain that he was away for treatment in Maryland at what he termed “an intensive pain recovery program.” That treatment included multiple medical procedures, he wrote in the email. Rooks also on Sunday told the News&Guide that part of his treatment program included addressing alcohol abuse, which he said had escalated in recent months as he tried to “self-medicate” for the chronic pain he experiences.

Rooks said in the interview that after the 2019 incident, “I was very depressed, and had a lot of anxiety. I was dealing with chronic pain for the first time in my life, real serious, intense chronic pain. For a while after my accident I was dealing with it in a very healthy manner, doing the PT, doing acupuncture. But as some of those resources faded, I just was not taking care of myself; not doing all the things I needed to be doing to get myself as healthy as possible. And in the end I started, you know, habitually using alcohol.

“So I went and got help,” Rooks added, referring to not only the chronic pain and alcohol abuse, but also the mental health issues he was having, which he said were exacerbated by the deaths of three friends by suicide over the last year or so.

Rooks and his attorney, local resident Mel Orchard, were also quick to acknowledge the stigma attached to physical and mental health issues, along with substance abuse, and say they hope his example will encourage others who are struggling to face their problems directly without worrying about others’ responses.

“I am so proud of him for seeing and recognizing that self-care is crucial to doing your job,” said Orchard, who is representing Rooks in his civil lawsuit against the motorist who hit Rooks.

“If the constituents that voted him in think that because he is after self-care and recognize that he had a problem with self-medicating because his pain and dysfunction has been so hard to deal with, well, they can make a decision about that. But he’s still one of the most competent people I know,” Orchard said.

In his reply to Chambers’ initial email, Rooks suggested Chambers adhere to the Stephen R. Covey mantra: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Jim Rooks

Jim Rooks

He went on in that email to write, “I also wouldn’t start throwing stones while living in a glass house ... or $10,000 monthly rental. Perhaps we should examine that as part of our policy review as well. I suppose you would like anyone who disagrees with you to resign, or better yet, be “terminated?,” which was a reference to Chambers and her husband renting out their house for a month in July while they were visiting family out east. Chambers said they did not charge $10,000 a month for the rental.

Chambers took umbrage with that, replying: “You have threatened me. What you said regarding ‘throwing stones’ seems to be an attempt to intimidate me — and, in the public record! That is wildly inappropriate and demonstrates a sense of entitlement and lack of judgment that is stupefying.”

In her reply, Chambers also cited Wyoming Statute 15-1-107, which applies to the grounds for vacancies in office and how to fill them. Absent the local policy Chambers and the council now seek, Chambers told the News&Guide the statute is Jackson’s guidance for such measures. The statute states, in part, that: “A vacancy exists in the office of mayor or councilman if during the term for which elected any mayor or councilman: . . . (iii) Fails to attend four (4) or more consecutive regularly scheduled meetings of the council without an excused absence as determined by a majority of the council.”

Town Attorney Colasuonno wasn’t able to be reached by press time Tuesday for clarification regarding the guiding law under which the town currently operates, but the council has made no moves to attempt to vacate Rooks’ seat.

Chambers, who seconded a successful motion at the beginning of the Sept. 20 meeting to excuse Rooks’ absence, which was his fourth consecutive from a regularly scheduled meeting, has said in subsequent interviews that members of the public might second-guess or question the validity of any vote in which Rooks’ position might be a deciding factor until the council has passed the town’s own policies or ordinances. That process takes three readings at subsequent meetings.

In that same email, Chambers accused Rooks of apparently being intoxicated on narcotics at a January new-councilor orientation session, and called him “the real, rude, threatening, manipulative, and dishonest Jimbo Rooks that I and our fellow council campaigners came to know last year.”

Minutes later, Rooks fired back: “I haven’t taken a pain killer since I was discharged from St John’s Hospital in August, 2019. I got a lot of issues, but that’s not one of them.” In his Sunday interview with the News&Guide, Rooks stood firmly by that statement, saying that he recognized he has an addictive personality and that he and St. John’s staff worked together to wean him off of all narcotics before he was discharged from the hospital.

Rooks said in that same Sunday interview that he believes Chambers is trying to get him removed from the council and replaced by Devon Viehman, a Realtor who was one of four finalists on the ballot for the two open council seats last November and is a friend of Chambers.

“Absolutely ... I think that’s absolutely what her ploys are based upon,” Rooks said.

He pointed to Chambers’ actions in the not-too-distant past, when last summer she met with Councilor Jonathan Schechter and asked him to resign his council seat so a younger woman of color might be named to replace him.

“I think the best predictor of current and future behavior is past behavior,” Rooks said. “So, obviously the News&Guide and our community are aware of some actions during last year’s campaign cycle where duly-elected council member Jonathan Schechter was asked to resign.”

Chambers, meanwhile, adamantly denied the assertion that she was trying to replace Rooks with Viehman on the council. The News&Guide and Viehman’s emails were copied by Chambers on her second email in the thread, and on the subsequent emails between Chambers and Rooks.

“At this point, honestly, I don’t think he belongs there, but I’m not trying to get him replaced by Devon,” Chambers told the News&Guide. “I’m sure if he did resign his seat, she would apply [to replace him], but the reason I included her [on the email thread] was just so that she could see that the real Jim that we all knew is still there. That’s why she was included.”

The personal division between the two council members and the potential impact it could have on the council effectively conducting town business is not lost on Mayor Morton Levinson, Vice Mayor Arne Jorgensen, or Councilor Schechter. However, all three expressed varying degrees of confidence that the council could overcome the distraction.

“I hope it would not, but I fear it might,” Schechter said, noting that he hopes Rooks has returned healthy and able, while ruing the fact that the council has been prevented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic from meeting in person, which he said tends to help with communication among members.

“The thing that really resonates with me on this is something [former Jackson Town Manager] Bob McLaurin used to say, which is, ‘The job of the Town Council is to be hard on the issues and soft on the people,’ ” Schechter added, repeating an exact McLaurin quote he was unaware Mayor Morton Levinson had told the News&Guide hours earlier.

Schechter added Tuesday that he had received no feedback — positive or negative — from the public regarding Rooks’ absences while undergoing treatment, nor was he aware of any that other council members might have received.

Vice Mayor Jorgensen was straightforward in his assessment of any possible impact.

“In our public meetings, I think that we have been respectful to each other and I don’t have any reason why that would not continue,” he said. “I hope that the folks that have some disagreements are able to work through those, but I don’t see any particular reason why there would be an assumption that it’s going to lead to a distraction from the council’s business.”

Asked if she was concerned the rift might lead to problems, the mayor was also candid in her response.

“Yes,” Morton Levinson said.

But she also was quick to invoke McLaurin’s advice.

“You may disagree all the time with another council member, but we need to be able to work cordially together because that’s the only way we can move things along.”

Contact Tim Woods at 732-5911 or town@jhnewsandguide.com.

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