“Nothing has rocked the city like this”

Dear ROPnet,

“I’ve worked for the city for over seven years. I’ve worked for dispatch; for the police department; I’ve seen a lot of changes but nothing has rocked the city like this.”

Savannah Lovell, former John Day city employee

ROP works to build a shared standard of human dignity, including the belief in the equal worth of all communities. In the past year, stories have piled up of city and county governments disregarding democratic principles of governance and ruling without due process under the law. 

Today we wanted to share with you the story of what everyday Oregonians in John Day are doing to address anti-democratic actions by elected officials in their hometown. Are you dealing with something similar? Drop us a line by emailing Emma at emma@rop.org! We’d love to compare notes!

What’s happening in John Day?

In September of 2023, OPB reported that “city council meetings have broken down in acrimony, employees are reporting an erosion in city services and a coalition of residents is encouraging state authorities to begin a criminal investigation into the mayor.”

What led to this point? To start, John Day hasn’t had a permanent city manager since June 2022. Mayor Heather Rookstool won her election in November 2022 by only 47 votes, ousting the previous mayor from his seat.

When Mayor Rookstool took office, the Blue Mountain Eagle reported that the council voted to have her and the city council president share some managerial duties until the city found a replacement. This new arrangement violated the city charter in multiple ways: a mayor is not allowed to hold city manager duties, and there is a 6-month limit for an interim manager. Rookstool held that position for 11 months. 

In response to this and other issues, more than two dozen residents, including all seven John Day city employees, signed a criminal complaint against the mayor for violating the city charter. The complaint was then elevated to the Oregon Department of Justice and Oregon State Police.

Why did community members take action against the mayor?

The mayor meddled in contracts approved by the council, tampered with public records, pressured interim city managers to retaliate against employees on her behalf, and used her position as interim city manager to overturn council decisions. She attempted to get the council to extend her authority to hiring and firing staff, and when that failed, she tried on various occasions to change personnel policies to create hardship and single out specific staff members. 

“Our city is essentially at a complete standstill. A year and a half ago, we were flourishing.”

Savannah Lovell, former John Day city employee

City employees were increasingly alarmed by a level of dysfunction that meant the community was not receiving important resources. The city council has worked to shut down any projects started by former city manager Nick Green, resulting in affordable housing and high-speed internet projects stalling out entirely.

At one point, the city council returned $2 million they had previously applied for to renovate the community pool because they couldn’t make use of the funds. They also refused to accept $100,000 grant from Ford Family Foundation that would have been the first of 5 annual grants, totalling half a million dollars.

How else have they tried to hold her accountable?

A group of current and past employees and other community members who are calling themselves Citizens for a Thriving Grant County have been writing letters to the editor, posting on social media, and showing up to city council meetings to bring attention to what is happening.

For example, when one employee noticed that attorneys were charging extremely high rates for fulfilling public records requests, they raised concerns at a council meeting that the high rates prevent people from accessing records. The council responded “thank you, next” or “duly noted” to each public comment and never responded to the concerns raised. It got so predictable that one employee printed hats that read “duly noted” and wore them on the job!

Another example of concerning conduct began a year ago: The Council worked on a new employee handbook, and approved a final version in May of 2023. Then in June, the city attorney’s invoice listed working with the mayor on the handbook. A staff member brought this concern to the council because the city charter states that the mayor is not allowed to change the employee handbook independently. Mayor Rookstool told this employee to their face, “No changes are being made.” 

Months later, a new version of the handbook was presented that included significant changes to the staff person’s position who had brought concerns back in June. When she brought the issue back to the council, they merely responded “duly noted.”

Getting nowhere by bringing concerns to the council’s attention, employees reached out to state agencies for advice and assistance. From the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries to the Oregon Ethics Commission, from the League of Oregon Cities to the city’s insurance provider, each agency has responded with some version of “there is nothing we can do.” The employees even looked into suing their own council, because it felt like elected officials were free from the constraints of the rules.

In August, the John Day city government successfully became a unionized workplace. They had near unanimous support, as folks saw it as a way to protect themselves from the council’s actions. They are currently bargaining for their first contract.

The final straw: a recall election

In September, Citizens for a Thriving Grant County decided that the best remaining course of action would be to recall the mayor. All the employees signed the petition in November. They needed to submit 110 signatures to get the petition on the ballot, and they collected those signatures in less than 24 hours! 

Then the group knocked on doors all over town, handing out a two-page leaflet with information about why the recall was happening. They also started a Facebook page to answer questions and to reach younger folks as well as people who hadn’t answered the door.

The recall election happened on January 16th, and on February 7th, the results were certified. They won! The mayor was recalled by a healthy margin. 

With the Mayor out, several other councilors complicit in her actions are still in power. Celebrating their victory, the people of John Day are planning to either bring these councilors back to proper council procedure or remove them from the council.

What are we taking away?

John Day isn’t alone in dealing with local elected officials disregarding laws and the opinions of the majority of the community. But it does offer us a powerful story of community members coming together and demanding a change.

What lessons can we draw from this campaign in John Day? What are we going to do about this statewide trend?Let us know your reflections on this story and how it connects to what your community is experiencing by emailing Emma at emma@rop.org

Warmly,

Emma and the ROP Team

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