In John Day, 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.
More than two dozen residents signed on to a criminal complaint they filed against the mayor of John Day. Among the signers were seven John Day city employees, the city’s entire workforce, according to a former city manager.
The group sent the complaint to the Oregon Department of Justice and Oregon State Police Sept. 19 with the hopes of pushing back against Mayor Heather Rookstool, who they accuse of violating the city charter by assuming city manager duties while the position remains vacant.
The residents allege that Rookstool’s actions are not only hurting the city council but the city government as a whole.
“Mayor Rookstool’s outright hostility toward city employees and deceptive practices seem designed to undermine the separation of powers inherent in the council-manager form of government for her own political ends, calling into question the legitimate order of our local government enshrined in our Charter,” the complaint states.
The result of the mayor’s actions, the group writes, was a series of employee resignations as tensions grew between the mayor and her political allies, and the city personnel who did not want to work under her.
The growing divisions in John Day’s government go beyond Rookstool, according to some of the complainants. They say the fight is emblematic of worsening political attacks in a deeply conservative county. And some worry those conflicts may get worse as city services begin to unravel.
When asked to do an interview about the complaint, Rookstool asked for more information about the document but otherwise declined to comment.
The city of John Day was steeped in controversy well before Rookstool became mayor.
Over the course of 2022, the city supported two bond proposals to build a new public pool in John Day. Both narrowly failed at the ballot box. Rookstool initially supported the pool project before changing her stance and voicing concerns about the cost.
For many John Day residents, it was just the latest instance in a long-running debate between the people who want to grow the town after a prolonged period of population decline and stagnation, and those who want to preserve John Day’s small-town character and conservative identity.
Even as the pool debate faded, the core dispute about what John Day should look like in the future persisted.
Rookstool was sworn in as mayor in January, but it took until April for the council to fill her former seat as members deadlocked over potential replacements, according to the Blue Mountain Eagle. In June, an interim city manager resigned after two months on the job amid employee complaints. Events came to a head at an August public meeting when the city recorder and a city councilor both resigned from their positions as Rookstool tried to get the council to grant her more managerial duties.
The complaint alleges that Rookstool was trying to play both mayor and city manager much earlier in her tenure.
John Day has a council-manager form of government, meaning the City Council sets the policy and budget, and hires a city manager to handle the day-to-day duties of running city operations.
John Day hasn’t had a permanent city manager since June 2022, and when Rookstool took office, the Eagle reported that the council voted to have her and the city council president share some managerial duties until the city found a replacement.
The complaint states that Rookstool revised the resolution after it passed to give her sole authority in supervising city employees, enforcing contracts, and developing city laws. The city recorder had missed the previous city council meeting, according to the group, and signed off on the resolution without knowing that Rookstool had revised it.
The complaint alleges that Rookstool was open about being the city manager, adding the title to her signature when she signed a contract in June, posting “Playing mayor/city manager today!!!” on social media along with a picture of herself sitting at the city manager’s desk and telling the city’s public works director that she was his “boss.”
These are only a few of the complaint’s accusations, which the group points to as not only violating the city charter that separates mayoral and city manager powers, but also numerous state laws. Other accusations include improperly advertising a public meeting where she sought hiring and firing powers and interfering with a public records request from former city manager Nick Green involving some of her actions as mayor.
Current and former city employees say that city hall is much emptier than it was a year ago. Green said the city had 14 employees at the time of his departure in 2022. The ongoing disputes have left Grant County’s largest city with about half that amount.
Crossing the line
Katrina Randleas hadn’t been on the council long when she made a very public resignation.
A program supervisor for a local nonprofit, Randleas said she knew the community was already deeply divided when she applied for a seat on the council last spring. She got the job and won an election for a new term in November.
By August, she decided she had enough. She didn’t like that a faction of the council were at odds with city staff and she felt like the mayor wasn’t always providing her with all the information she needed to make decisions. A sudden meeting to expand the mayor’s powers was the last straw.
“Without trust in the process, I can no longer duly represent the residents of the City of John Day in good conscience as a part of this Council,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “I am not resigning because I don’t want to represent you anymore; I am resigning because I believe that in continuing on this Council, I am sending a message that I approve of the lack of respect, transparency, and integrity that is occurring.”
In an interview, Randleas said the mayor and some councilors weren’t supporting city staff and were withholding information from the rest of the council. Although the council ultimately took no action, Rookstool’s move represented the final straw for Randleas.
“It feels like there’s this attempt to eliminate a lot of our city staff,” she said. “If we have turnover among our city staff while we have no city manager, we’re really more in a more challenging place.”
Savannah Lovell has held several positions since she started working for the city seven years ago but is currently working as a code enforcement officer and records clerk.
Lovell said the city employees are united in supporting the criminal complaint against Rookstool because they want to see a return to the council-manager form of government. Lovell said city services have taken a hit and staff shortages have led to city hall not being able to consistently maintain its hours of operation.
Early in her tenure as a city councilor, Randleas heard from a coworker who couldn’t find anyone at city hall to provide her with a building permit. Randleas worries that these problems have only gotten worse since then and the lack of city staffing could hurt an ongoing sewer project.
“At what point do we not have running water and flushing toilets in our community?” she said.
Green had already left his position as John Day city manager by the time Rookstool took office, but he signed the complaint because of the effect Rookstool’s decisions were having on city staff and the city manager’s office.
If he and the complaint authors’ issues with Rookstool were solely political, Green said, they would have initiated a recall campaign. But for Green, this was about more than the direction of local politics.
“We believe at this point, it’s criminal, and that at some point, our mayor and other councilors who are engaged in these practices crossed the line from ignorance or misunderstanding of the law to the deliberate and willful violation of it,” he said. “We would like these agencies to investigate and arrive at their own conclusion.”
Concerns go beyond the mayor
An educational assistant at Grant Union Junior/Senior High School, Rookstool was a city councilor before she was elected mayor in 2022, according to the Eagle.
Running on a platform of transparency and respect, Rookstool gathered 404 votes and defeated the incumbent mayor, who had nearly two decades of experience on the city council. Since winning that election, Rookstool has seen support from conservatives in the county. A Facebook group called “Conservatives of Grant County,” which has more than 600 followers, frequently posts in defense of Rookstool, alleging that her critics have been “lining their own pockets” with tax dollars.
Although they were highly critical of her leadership, the complaint’s authors who were interviewed didn’t place all the blame on Rookstool. For these John Day residents, Rookstool’s mayorship represents larger trends around town.
Green said he left John Day city government after six years because of the stress and demands of the job that was being made worse by an angrier atmosphere around the city. Whether it was because of the coronavirus pandemic or presidential politics, Green said it felt like it was “open season on administrators.”
“You could threaten and harass and ridicule and basically do anything you wanted to and (administrators) had no mechanism to respond,” he said. “And at some point you start to get tired of that and the wear and tear on you personally, you just decide it’s time to move on and do something else.”
During his time as city manager, Green gained a reputation as a small-town innovator. He raised tens of millions of dollars in capital funds and spearheaded novel projects like 3D-printed houses to help solve the city’s housing shortage and a greenhouse that grew fresh produce from the city’s gray water.
But Green’s ambitions were not always well received in every corner of John Day, especially by more conservative residents who felt like he was misusing public money on projects that weren’t helping the city. In heavily conservative Grant County, signs of going against the political grain can result in professional consequences.
On the campaign trail, Rookstool said she would consider scaling back some of the projects initiated by Green if it would help the city save money.
Lovell said Green became one of the dividing lines in John Day during his tenure.
“I think that’s where a lot of this started was just with people disagreeing (about) which side (to take) and what should be happening and then splitting even further from there,” she said. “There’s been a huge effort to undo what was done under our past city manager, and that effort has undermined all of the projects that the city has going.”
With the complaint now in the hands of state authorities, the people behind will now have to wait to see how police and prosecutors handle it. The Oregon Department of Justice acknowledged it has received the complaint but didn’t comment further.
While others said they hoped the complaint would lead to more abstract outcomes like “truth” or “accountability,” Lovell had a much more definitive answer.
“If someone is willing to abuse their power in that capacity, I would like to see her removed from office,” she said.