New Town Councilor Jim Rooks plans to donate about $5,000 of his pay from his elected position to nonprofits.
He disclosed his plan Thursday morning during the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce’s virtual Business Over Breakfast, saying he would give away the “discrepancy” between the previous councilor salary and the new one.
The pay used to be $25,000 annually, but it was raised in May by the Jackson Town Council to $32,750, effective in 2021 for newly elected members. It was the first increase in 15 years.
Rooks and Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers, both elected this past November, are paid at the higher rate, while Councilors Jonathan Schechter and Arne Jorgensen, who were elected in November 2018 and won’t face reelection until 2022, receive the lower salary.
“This is a team sport,” Rooks told the Jackson Hole Daily. “I find it really difficult for me to be working as part of a team where I’m being compensated on a greater level than they are.
“I also have a hard time receiving a pay raise during COVID when I know so many people are struggling greatly,” he said.
Chambers, who believes better pay for town councilors might entice a wider range of people to run for office, said of Rooks’ decision, “I think it’s great if you can do it.”
As for whether she’ll follow suit, she said, “There’s not a chance I can afford that.”
Rooks said this is a personal decision by him and his wife, Ruth Moran, not a political issue, which is why he didn’t talk about it during his campaign or even after he won. He doesn’t want anyone else to feel pressured to do what he’s doing.
“First and foremost, to be a member of the Town Council is a tremendous amount of work, and I do think, in fact, that the council is probably underpaid,” he said. “I do understand that the level of payment is a burden and a hurdle that prevents some people from considering entering into elected office.”
Rooks said he supported the pay raise “100%,” and said the tiered implementation was required by constitutional law. That the raise took effect during a pandemic was unfortunate timing.
Rooks said he and his wife plan to donate through Old Bill’s to get the most bang for their buck.
She is executive director of pARTners, which will get $1,000. The Center of Wonder, where he is executive director, will get $1,000. Three other nonprofits will also each receive $1,000: Hole Food Rescue, One22 and Teton Youth and Family Services.
The couple will donate the difference for two years, until everyone on the council catches up, and then decide how to proceed.
The council’s decision to raise salaries — also including an increase for the new mayor to $39,300, from $30,000 — became a hot button issue in last year’s elections.
Attack ads funded by an out-of-state, right-wing conservative group cited the pay raise as a reason why voters should not elect Hailey Morton Levinson, a town councilor running for mayor, and Mayor Pete Muldoon, who was running to be a town councilor.
Rooks acknowledged that it’s possible somebody might try to make political hay of what he’s doing now.
“For me it is not a political issue,” Rooks said. “If others choose to make it that, so be it. I can’t control that. For me it’s a matter of personal principle.”