Ralph Mossman

Driggs council member Ralph Mossman resigned in early January after serving since Mayor Dan Powers first appointed him in 2010.

On Jan. 7, Driggs City Council member Ralph Mossman submitted a letter of resignation, effective immediately, writing that his decision was the result of numerous negative interactions in the last 15 months, most recently an email from Mayor Hyrum Johnson to the city council that made what Mossman described as “accusations targeting a fellow council member” that were “disrespectful, unsubstantiated, inaccurate, and simply wrong. And unfortunately, typical.”

In Johnson’s Jan. 6 email, the mayor wrote that a council member whom he did not name but identified as female had “engaged in a concerning and inappropriate exchange with a member of staff” by making inquiries of the staff member that Johnson said “escalated in multiple increasingly intrusive requests.” Johnson wrote that if such an interaction occurred again, it would be grounds for a formal reprimand or possible sanctions.

Councilwoman August Christensen, who believes the mayor’s email was referring to her, told the Teton Valley News she had asked for more information from a staff member on a staff report that had been prepared for a council meeting.

“I do my homework, I follow through, I do my research,” Christensen said about preparing for council meetings. “The last few times I’ve reached out to administrative heads, they said go to the point person on the staff.”

The mayor’s stance was that council members should not contact “line level employees” with questions, only department heads or the mayor, because when a single council member engages with staff “it can be confusing and alarming” and even “threatening,” “demoralizing,” or “frustrating.”

Christensen said she felt that Johnson’s email had shamed her in front of her peers and coworkers and made it sound as if something untoward had occurred. She said she expected that the matter would be discussed during a confidential executive session at the council meeting on Jan. 19.

Tension Rising

There had been conflict brewing for over a year at Driggs City Hall. The council and mayor had even decided to go into conflict mediation this month after the tension between the legislative and executive branch became untenable.

Different incidents had highlighted the power play between Johnson, the only full-time mayor in the valley, and the council members, two of whom had held office as long or longer than Johnson.

Citing the risk of litigation against the city and its electeds, the mayor keeps tight control over the proceedings of meetings, directing the conversation back on track when it wanders into the weeds. In 2019 a dispute over who was allowed to put items on meeting agendas and how they could do so erupted into strong words.

Johnson sometimes suggests during meetings that the council members’ drawn-out deliberations, votes in opposition, and painstaking review of details is a show of disrespect to the city staff. Members of the council have become visibly frustrated when their discussions have been questioned, interrupted, or cut short.

“This is our job, it’s how we make decisions,” Christensen once said during a meeting after being told she shouldn’t continue a line of questioning. “We’re not just there to rubber-stamp decisions.”

In October of 2020 the mayor surprised the council members by directing them to turn in all the notes they had taken during a public hearing about a land use matter. He explained that just like emails exchanged about city business, personal notes taken during a meeting are public records. This followed with the city’s new practice of gathering every single correspondence and preemptively adding them to a project packet rather than waiting for a public records request. This came about as a result of a settlement with Valley Advocates for Responsible Development after a land use decision was contested this summer. After the meeting Christensen said that she had asked other cities as well as the Association of Idaho Cities and learned that note gathering was unheard of in the cities where she inquired.

After another round of recriminations during a meeting in October, city attorney Stephen Zollinger, himself a licensed mediator, suggested that the council and mayor should look into mediation. He said he would find an experienced, unbiased candidate to lead the dialogue. Christensen expressed reluctance to work with a mediator who “didn’t know the city” but said she was open to the idea. Councilwoman Jen Calder agreed, saying “It seems like it would probably be beneficial. I’ve been here less than a year but it seems like there’s an awful lot of tension.”

Last week Johnson told the Teton Valley News that the cost for mediation was higher than expected, and that the mediator questioned the efficacy of meeting online (one council member was out of the area at the time), so the mayor and council will revisit the idea at a later meeting.

The Last Straw

At the Jan. 5 council meeting, the city planning administrator led the council through a mission statement exercise to guide the planning department’s future code enforcement actions. Mossman said that annoyed him; he pointed to the council’s unfinished effort to write a mission statement for the city that started several years ago and was never taken up again. He added that just last summer the council had nearly passed a document outlining its code enforcement strategy, so to go back to the beginning felt like a waste of effort.

Then the next day, council received the email from the mayor, saying that one member had been making “intrusive” inquiries to a staff member.

“I have frequently commented to the council on the distrust which has arisen between the council and city staff in recent years, and this type of interaction only deepens that feeling of disrespect and distrust,” Johnson wrote.

That was the last straw, Mossman said. In his resignation email, Mossman wrote that the accusation was consistent with the mayor’s “continued verbal abuse.” In the past Mossman had received emails from Johnson that he described as “particularly aggressive” and “disrespectful,” leading Mossman to file a formal complaint with the city in November of 2019. He said the personal emails from the mayor stopped and the city held “civility training” for its elected officials, but that his relationship with the mayor was “permanently injured.”

“It’s not illegal to be mean, but it’s not a great way to run an organization,” Mossman said.

“I know Ralph has been feeling some frustration toward me and my management approach for awhile,” Johnson told the TVN. “We differ on how to best and most effectively run this organization. I think our values and vision are very similar but we have different approaches when it comes to roles and responsibilities.”

Mossman, who has been on the council since 2010, said he missed his role as a city legislator. “I used to be on committees to write ordinances, like dark skies, the dog ordinance, water rates, then it stopped. It’s odd because I used to have good relationships with those people on staff. It’s weird to be in an organization but the four of you aren’t supposed to communicate with the rest of the team.”

“We’re told we should just be approving things,” he added. “We just get reassured that everything is fine.”

It’s the mayor’s responsibility to appoint a Driggs resident to fill Mossman’s seat on council. Johnson, Christensen, Councilman Tristan Taylor, and Mossman’s replacement will all be up for reelection this November, if they choose to run.

“I think it’s the right thing to do for the city,” Mossman said about his resignation. “It frees me up to do more, and it allows someone else to go in without that tarnished relationship.”

A Possible Solution

Mossman, Christensen, and Johnson found common ground on one thing: the opinion that Driggs needs a city administrator. Johnson said that if he doesn’t run for mayor again this November, he “wants to hand off a sustainable structure to the next mayor that takes day-to-day operations off the mayor’s plate.”

Victor has a city administrator and a part-time mayor. The Victor mayor receives $15,000 per year with health insurance or $34,500 without health insurance. The Driggs mayor’s salary is $35,500 per year. During budget discussions in 2019, along with increasing the mayor and council’s salary, the Driggs council allocated some funds toward the creation of a new staff position with the hope of hiring someone by this fiscal year.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the last week,” Christensen said on Monday. “Budget season is around the corner. One reason we increased the mayor’s salary in 2019 was because he’s doing all the things. A city administrator would be a good solution in general, on many counts.”

“All the departments are great at performing their duties, but it takes a coordinator to make sure they don’t get too siloed and are still collaborating,” Johnson said. “They need a liaison.”

Mossman said he believes it’s almost inevitable that after a few terms, a mayor begins to seek more control.

“I think it comes with the territory,” he said. “You start to have some measure of control, you’ve hired all the staff, you have a vision of where you want the city to be, then you want to move without the encumbrances of government. I think, especially with the big changes that are coming at the end of 2021, an administrator would bring a measure of continuity.” (In addition to four of five elected seats being open in November, the city attorney will be retiring.)

“I think it will evolve if we can talk about it openly at a public meeting,” Christensen said about the relationship between staff, mayor, and council. “I hope this starts a conversation.”