It may seem like a formality, but to Jessica Sell Chambers and Jim Rooks, swearing an oath to the constitution of Wyoming—and as a representative for the Town of Jackson—is not a duty to be taken lightly. As a former teacher and lifelong student of U.S. history and government, Rooks said the day he took office was an emotional one.
“It’s humbling,” he said. “It’s one thing to run and be elected to public office. But when you raise that right hand and swear an oath to the Constitution and make that commitment to our community, it’s humbling. And I take it really seriously.”
Three weeks later, the town council held a virtual retreat, during which members were able to discuss priorities and long-term goals more broadly. Chambers said she quickly realized the limitations of her position.
“I’ve been fully disillusioned with our ability to do a lot of different things,” she said. “We are very limited due to staff capacity as far as what we can do.”
That’s why an immediate priority of Chambers’, along with the rest of the council, is raising revenue, especially because the seventh penny of sales tax failed last year. She said many ideas came up at the retreat on how to do that, but a couple of concrete winners emerged.
“The two things were levying a property tax and then adding some climate goals for departments,” Chambers said. “Both of those were ‘yes’ votes.”
While a property tax may scare some people, Chambers said, even a small levy—based on median household income—could go a long way to building staff capacity and allowing the council to address more issues voters have identified as important moving forward.
Speaking during her first State of the Town address in early February, Jackson Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson said the Town of Jackson has already cut its budget to the level it was at four years ago.
“While I’m proud of our staff for all we have accomplished and the hard work they have put in, the level of service needed for our community cannot be sustained at the current budget level,” Morton Levinson said.
At the same time, the number of issues requiring more attention from government officials has grown considerably over the past four years. Rooks said has a laundry list.
“I always call them the no-brainers of Jackson Hole,” he said. “You know, being stewards of the environment. Land, water, wildlife, health and human services, housing, transportation. It’s pretty easy to come to a quick list that everyone agrees on as big challenges.”
But, Rooks stressed there are other ways to try and get things done besides just raising taxes.
“How is it that I’m going to, you know, get help getting stuff done? I’m going to partner. I think the new rules of any organization are partnership, partnership, partnership,” he said.
He means partnerships between private entities and nonprofit organizations. Those kinds of arrangements allow the council to defer to experts focused on specific issues, as they’ve done throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ultimately, Chambers and Rooks aren’t locking horns daily, unlike during the campaign season. They do, however, have slightly different priorities and preferred methods for getting things done. Chambers said she’s focused on equity and human services, and that she’s looking into potentially increasing the minimum wage in Jackson.
“I view my role as essentially making this place more livable for working people and reducing some of their financial burdens to the extent that we can,” she said.
One thing Chambers and Rooks agree on: both feel honored to represent their community during a time when they say meaningful government action is especially critical, following the upheaval of 2020.
“2020 is going to serve as a wake-up call that civic involvement and civic engagement matter,” Rooks said, “[and] that extremism is not only a divisive factor in our country, but can be a deadly factor in our country.”
“I hope that this is a pivotal moment for us to see how unsustainable our system is and that it will ideally help moving forward to provide greater social safety nets,” Chambers said. “So, if we are faced with a crisis like this again, we will have a better response and people will weather the storm.”
Moving forward, Rooks and Sell Chambers remain determined to make their mark on the Jackson Town Council.