John Day’s controversial mayor could see a recall soon

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Oct. 28, 2023 1:08 a.m.

Much of the recall petition mirrored a criminal complaint filed by residents and city employees in September.

A ballot drop box outside the Grant County Sheriff's Department, August 29, 2019.

A ballot drop box outside the Grant County Sheriff's Department, August 29, 2019.

Emily Cureton Cook / OPB

Heather Rookstool’s tenure as John Day’s mayor is less than a year old, but some residents are hoping it won’t last much longer.


Oren Wyss, a wastewater treatment plant operator who works for the city, said that he submitted a recall petition at John Day City Hall on Friday.

In an interview, Wyss provided a long list of reasons why voters needed to boot Rookstool.

“Mayor Rookstool is not transparent and she’s not honest and she’s not trustworthy,” he said. “She’s not professional and has not acted in the best interest of John Day, its employees or residents.”

Much of Wyss’ remarks mirrored the words of a criminal complaint filed in September to the Oregon State Police and Oregon Department of Justice by a group of residents that included several city employees.

The criminal complaint alleges that Rookstool violated state law and the city charter repeatedly since she took over as mayor in January. The group alleges that Rookstool falsified documents, violated public meeting laws and interfered with public records requests as a part of a wider effort to gather power at a time when John Day had no city manager.

The group contends that Rookstool’s actions have created instability in the city government, spurring resignations on the city council and among city staff. Current and former staff argued that Rookstool is a threat to vital city services and city funding by trying to take over city manager duties.


Wyss said he tried to submit the recall petition to the Grant County Clerk’s Office earlier in the week but had to resubmit the forms at city hall because it was for a municipal office. Reached on Wednesday, Rookstool said she wouldn’t comment until she saw the recall petition.

While the criminal complaint is still in the hands of state authorities, Wyss said he sought a recall campaign because he wasn’t sure the state would take action.

“The coworkers and I were talking, and we decided it had to be done,” he said. “There’s a lot more grants coming up and a lot of them are in jeopardy.”

While Wyss has triggered the recall process, recall supporters will still need to take several more steps before they can put Rookstool back on the ballot.

Once city officials finish reviewing the petition, Wyss and recall supporters will have 90 days to collect signatures. The number of signatures supporters will need to collect will need to be equivalent to 15% of the votes cast in John Day during the 2022 gubernatorial election.

If recall supporters are able to collect enough verified signatures, Rookstool would get five days to decide if she wanted to resign or stand for a recall election. That election would take place within 35 days after that decision period expires.

John Day isn’t the only local government struggling with bitter internal political clashes. Morrow County voters recalled two county commissioners last year, meaning there weren’t enough commissioners to hold a quorum to run county meetings the last few weeks of the year. In Baker City, a cascade of city council resignations left no one on the governing body. After going dark for about a month, the Baker County Board of Commissioners appointed a set of replacements.

John Day has been without a permanent city manager since June 2022, but that should change soon. The Blue Mountain Eagle reported that the John Day City Council agreed to hire Melissa Bethel, a veteran city administrator, to fill the position at a Tuesday meeting.

Bethel is scheduled to start the job on Jan. 2 and assume day-to-day responsibilities over the city. But Wyss said hiring a city manager wouldn’t deter the recall campaign.

“We do feel that if the new city manager doesn’t follow what Mayor Heather Rookstool wants (then she’ll) probably be dismissed,” he said.