JACKSON — Some were calling it basement politics.
A horde of people stormed Jackson Town Hall during a Monday afternoon Town Council workshop, hoping to take the microphone and provide public comment to councilors, only to find empty chairs.
“They don’t have the balls to sit in those chairs and face this public,” longtime conservative activist Horton Spitzer said, dubbing the lack of physical presence as “basement politics” and “a cowardly attitude.” President Donald Trump has regularly criticized presidential challenger Joe Biden for conducting campaign operations from his basement.
The Town Council was having a workshop but councilors were appearing digitally, as most of them have been doing since the pandemic began more than five months ago. Councilors have been following recommended health guidelines by limiting the number of people in council chambers and wearing face coverings. Mayor Pete Muldoon has regularly led the meetings from council chambers, though at Monday night’s regularly scheduled meeting it was Vice-Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson who led the meeting from chambers. None of the five council members were in the chambers for the afternoon workshop and Mayor Muldoon led the online meeting from his home.
The group of approximately 70 people, some wearing masks, was there to show their support for law enforcement, under the impression that the Jackson Town Council was going to discuss defunding the Jackson Police Department, which is an idea they oppose.
“It’s unacceptable,” Spitzer told the crowd as they gathered on the front lawn of Town Hall. “I think this is the biggest crowd they’ve had on any issue. I think we’ve made a statement.”
The group was made up of people representing various groups, including the Jackson Hole Tea Party. Wealthy conservative businessman Foster Friess also made an appearance, making a brief statement to the crowd.
“Does anybody know how many reports there have been in the last two to three years of police brutality in Jackson? None,” he said. “Our kids have been brainwashed.”
Many people showed up because of a recorded robocall they got Sunday afternoon urging them to show up at Town Hall at 3 p.m. Monday.
In the call a woman’s voice said the “public safety alert” was sponsored by Turning Point Action.
“Our law enforcement officers are there for our families,” the message said. “Now they need us. Let’s show up tomorrow, Monday, 3 p.m. at Town Hall and make sure the town of Jackson knows that Jackson will back the blue. We stand in support of our police.”
Similar call-to-action text messages were also reportedly sent.
Many in attendance claimed the police department’s budget was on Monday’s agenda but that councilors were scared when they saw the “spontaneous mob event,” as described by Bob Culver, of the Tea Party, and decided to skip it.
However, neither the afternoon workshop nor the 6 p.m. regular Monday meeting had posted agenda items about police funding. Both agendas were published Thursday.
Additionally, public comment is not allowed at the afternoon workshops unless it’s about an item the council is set to vote on. The only such item on Monday’s workshop agenda was a vote related to “Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Ski Pass Contribution for START.”
At the beginning of the afternoon workshop, Mayor Muldoon addressed the factually incorrect robocalls, which wrongly stated that “the Town Council is meeting to discuss defunding the police here in Jackson Hole.”
“There seems to have been a rumor started that we were discussing abolishing the police department or something today, which is not true and I think it’s unfortunate that people are spreading that rumor,” Muldoon said at the meeting’s outset, adding that budget amendments could be made for any department as needed at some point later in the year.
In an interview with the News&Guide Tuesday, Muldoon said, “It would help if we based our actions on facts rather than on baseless rumors spread by anonymous texts. I certainly hope our police department wasn’t involved in this stunt that was designed to sow fear in the community and intimidate the Town Council from performing its duty of fiscal oversight of the police department.”
The show of support for police, weeks after the police department’s budget was finalized, possibly stemmed from a brief discussion by Town Council at the end of its Aug. 3 regular meeting.
“We have received a lot of public comment over the last few months about the proper funding for the police department,” Muldoon said.
Muldoon suggested Town Manager Larry Pardee work with the council to explore the department’s budget, which was scrutinized in the final days of budget discussions by the newly formed group Act Now JH, which called for defunding law enforcement and boosting social services with more public money.
The department’s budget was cut by 16%, but it was driven by expected revenue declines because of the pandemic.
In a Tuesday interview, Councilor Jim Stanford said the council fully approved all funding for the police department that was recommended by town of Jackson staff.
In the Aug. 3 meeting, Muldoon said councilors have an opportunity to take another look at the budget with Chief of Police Todd Smith retiring. Stanford agreed the dialogue should happen — one he said he’s been trying to have for almost a decade — but that there are more pressing issues at hand.
“The review is not a priority for me, but I’m open to having a look and seeing if there are ways to improve service for the town, or use resources more efficiently, as we commonly do with all departments,” Stanford said in an email to Town Council candidate Devon Viehman after she submitted public comment.
Councilor Arne Jorgensen said he sees the conversation more about shifting money, rather than taking money away.
They voted to have Pardee work with them for a council review of the department’s budget.
“No one is suggesting we abolish the police department,” Muldoon said Tuesday, “and the police department was not on yesterday’s agenda, which was published last week.”
Teton County resident Bill Rode was one of only a few people who showed up to the demonstration with a picket sign, which read: “Defund socialism.”
“I feel as if I am being governed by people who don’t have enough life experience to make rational choices and decisions,” Rode said. “I have been alive long enough. Recently I had a man aim a gun at me down at the river and threaten to kill me. When I ran away I called the police, and they came down, it took four of them to subdue the guy. I don’t believe a social worker would have helped me.”
Rode said it’s the first time in his 71 years he has felt compelled to show up to a protest, though what he was protesting was never intended to be discussed by the council Monday.
“A lot of the elected officials, with their young age now, got participation trophies and never learned to win or lose, and they never got spanked,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of people under 40 here. There are older people who really understand what life is really about.”
Chief of Police Todd Smith was there Monday. He said he saw some of his friends in the crowd and others he’s never met.
He described the throng as “the silent majority.”
“If we want our voice to be heard, we have to learn from what the other side is doing,” Smith told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “They have to show up and speak their mind. Everyone who works here has families and friends they know who are supportive. Let them be part of the debate and the discussion. Show up and be part of it. Otherwise we might wake up one day and wonder why we weren’t ever heard.”
Smith said all the public comment about defunding the police in June caused some “internal strife.”
“It has evolved more into a lot of police officers questioning if this is worth it,” Smith said. “No one predicted that local law enforcement would be judged based upon a national issue.”
Activists behind the defund movement, though, said it is a Jackson issue.
“What we need to keep in mind in Jackson is that the call to defund the police is not just about specific incidents of police brutality,” said Rachel Attias of Act Now JH. “It is about doing away with the system of policing itself, which has always oppressed Black and brown people, as well as people with mental health or substance-abuse problems, poor people, and victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.”
Attias said for law enforcement and its supporters to pretend like there’s no room for improvement is disingenuous.
“This oppression occurs anywhere policing exists, Jackson included,” she said. “We don’t need to have had a nationally recognized police murder to understand that our local police system is not the best way to ensure the safety of all our citizens.”