Jackson EMS chief leaves department after fiery public debate

Stephen Jellie says he’s leaving with a $150,000 severance package, after months of public backlash about his leadership.
Stephen Jellie, who took the helm of Jackson Hole Fire/EMS over a year ago, stands in his uniform in front of the Center for the Arts. He says he feels "disregarded" after being asked to resign, while others think his departure is "for the best." (Tyler Pratt/KHOL)

by | Jan 30, 2024 | News

Jackson’s fire chief said he’s officially resigning tomorrow — after months of public backlash about his leadership.

“It’s a pretty sad day for me and my family,” Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Stephen Jellie told KHOL in a Tuesday interview.

Teton County officials placed the chief on administrative leave earlier this month. Around the same time, Jellie said they asked him to resign and started negotiating an agreement, which he said includes a $150,000 severance agreement.

Board of County Commissioners Chairman Luther Propst confirmed the parties came to this “separation agreement.”

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“This whole thing is just bizarre — I want to look ahead,” Propst said, adding he has  “tremendous” confidence in the leadership of the interim chief, Mike Moyer.

He continued, “I want to express my gratitude to the staff and volunteers of our Fire/EMS service.”

Over the past few weeks, staff, volunteers and other community members showed up en masse to county meetings, calling Jellie’s management style threatening and demeaning.

“An unqualified, inexperienced and tyrannical chief is heading us toward a catastrophe,” said Jack Krill, a volunteer firefighter, at a public meeting. “A change is needed to provide for the safety of the firefighters and the public.”

Gear at Firehouse 3 in Hoback, where several vocal critics of Stephen Jellie volunteer. (Will Walkey/KHOL)

But, according to Jellie, many of the problems are due to budget deficits and being a newcomer to the department.

“A lot of it was some of the typical things you would expect when a new leader, with a new perspective, shows up in an organization that has a lot of challenges there,” he said. “Those challenges have been there for a while. They need to be worked on.”

According to Jackson Hole News & Guide reporting, Treasurer Katie Smits and County Clerk Maureen Murphy have objected to Jellie’s characterization of the budget.

“In our opinion, the Fire/EMS budget was not in a state of crisis,” they wrote in a December letter to county commissioners.

Jellie said he’s “disheartened” to be leaving the department this way. However, David Cernicek, a volunteer firefighter of more than 20 years, told KHOL that the departure is probably for the best.

He cited department-wide cuts he thinks puts safety at risk — and communication problems.

“That chain of command is very vital in emergency situations, and if we can’t achieve that … the whole system breaks down,” Cernicek said. “It’s not working, it hasn’t worked for a long time.”

Jellie has been in the role for just over a year, after moving his family from northern New York.

“I feel like I did all the really tough, hard, you know, sort of nasty work in the first year,” Jellie said. “It really seems unfortunate that we’re sort of switching gears after all that hard work has been done.”

He said he wants to stay in the region, but can’t without any opportunities for work.

This story has been updated to include comments from Teton County representatives. 

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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