Wetumka city manager fired, mayor reported to FBI
By Tres Savage
NonDoc Editor in chief
With two members absent, the Wetumka City Council voted 3-0 Tuesday evening (Jan. 14) to terminate City Manager Donnie Jett and force him and Mayor James Jackson to relinquish their keys to City Hall. Attendees of the meeting learned the two men may be facing FBI investigation.
Jackson and his wife, Rebecca, were the two councilmembers missing from the emergency meeting, a culmination of nine months of mounting frustrations about a family that moved to Wetumka from Illinois and took functional control of the 1,200-person town’s government.
Tuesday night, about 80 people crammed into City Council chambers and demanded that the other three councilmembers retake control from James Jackson and Jett, the man selected as city manager in 2019. Wetumka operates under a city manager form of governance, with the council overseeing the manager’s actions.
Councilmembers briefly discussed whether to terminate Jett or merely suspend him until he could appear to defend himself.
“Since about June or July he has not come to city council meetings as city manager,” Councilwoman Norma Marshall said of Jett.
Councilman Randy Hinkley — who was elected in April along with the Jacksons — said Jett’s typical absence was at the mayor’s direction.
“That’s because James told him he didn’t have to show up,” Hinkley said.
Marshall replied: “Well, he’s a man and can make his own choice.”
Ultimately, the three attending members — including June Fixico — voted unanimously to remove Jett, select City Clerk Joanna Hulstine as interim city manager and require Jett and James Jackson to turn in their keys.
Hinkley said State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd’s office began an audit of the town earlier this month.
Wednesday morning, a post in the Wetumka Politics and Discussion Facebook group said James Jackson had resigned as mayor but was remaining on the City Council.
Reached by phone Wednesday morning, Hulstine said Jackson had sent text messages to several people saying he would resign as mayor, but she said paperwork had not yet been filed with the city.
“He hasn’t actually done what he needs to do officially to resign as mayor,” Hulstine said. “So until we get that official documentation, I’m not going to feel comfortable (commenting further) until it’s official.”
‘Making problems with other people in town’
To start a 30-minute public comment period among Wetumka residents, Wetumka Police Chief Joe Cooper told the assembled crowd he had presented information about Jackson and Jett to the FBI.
“We’ve got Mayor Jackson and Donnie Jett under investigation,” Cooper said.
After the meeting, Cooper said he turned over a roughly 300-page report to the FBI in Oklahoma City and that a representative of Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office was in attendance. He said the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation was already aware of the situation.
“I had seen some stuff that had to be taken to a federal level above our heads,” said Cooper, the fifth officer to hold the title since Jackson assumed office in April. “Checks were being signed only by James Jackson. A lot of checks with one signature on it (went) to Donnie Jett. There are supposed to be three signatures on the checks.”
Reached by phone after the meeting, James Jackson denied any and all allegations, saying the previous municipal leadership was who had engaged in criminal financial behavior.
Around 10:45 a.m. Wednesday after the publication of this story, he called NonDoc to confirm he was resigning as mayor and to provide explanation of the check-signing allegation made by Cooper.
In short, Jackson said city bylaws require checks to be signed by the mayor, city manager and city treasurer. Owing to the exit of two city treasurers during his mayoral term, Jackson said he needed to pay Jett but did not have a treasurer on staff to sign. He said he called a local bank and was told the three-signature requirement was town policy and not bank policy. He said he only signed one such check to Jett.
“He’s 73 and doesn’t need money,” Jackson said. “Me and my wife are independently wealthy and don’t need the money.”
The night before, Jackson emphasized the cliquish nature of Wetumka’s former councilmembers and city employees.
“This is hokey,” he said. “They are crazy. We did nothing.”
Some Wetumka natives believe otherwise, including the first police chief Jackson fired in June, two months after he received 172 of 278 votes (61.9 percent) for his council seat.
“I knew the moment that he was elected he was going to come after me and the city manager,” said Joe Chitwood, now the police chief of Calvin, Oklahoma. “There’s some backstory to that.”
Jackson: ‘You name it, they’ve said it’
According to Chitwood, that “backstory” includes drama surrounding Wetumka’s old newspaper building the Jacksons purchased on Main Street.
“According to him, it was infested with bees,” Chitwood said. “It could have been or it couldn’t have been. I don’t know. I never saw any proof of that. He also claimed it was full of asbestos, and I didn’t see how that was the city’s problem.”
From there, Chitwood said he received allegations about Jackson that were mostly vague until one woman agreed to file a report saying Jackson had stopped in front of her house and had taken a photo of her child.
“I questioned him about, ‘This is what happened, James, I’d like to get your side to it — or maybe it wasn’t even a thing and you weren’t there,’” Chitwood said. “But it was on from there.”
Jackson said all of the allegations made against him are absurd.
“You name it, they’ve said it. There’s hardly anything you could say minus murder, I guess — I don’t know that they’ve ever said that. But everything else they’ve said. Everything in the world, like I took pictures of little children,” Jackson said. “I don’t even own a camera. I don’t own a smartphone. I’m talking to you on a flip phone.”
Chitwood said the situation only got worse, functionally dividing the community.
“He started making problems with other people in town,” Chitwood said. “They were scared or freaked out by things he was doing with that young girl. It was just [public displays of affection], and a lot of folks didn’t approve of it.”
Jackson and his wife are the former legal guardians of that “young girl,” 21-year-old Autumn Jackson who is now an emancipated adult, according to the mayor.
Autumn Jackson previously went by the name Paula Israel in Fulton, Illinois, where she briefly filed to run for mayor at age 17 near the end of 2016. She withdrew her candidacy in 2017 before the family moved to Wetumka. The family has operated an archiving business in Fulton and Wetumka. In the Illinois town, they also ran an ice cream parlor.
James Jackson said his wife moved to Hughes County, Oklahoma, before him for work as a pharmacist in a nearby community. He said he and Autumn Jackson arrived in August 2017 after she completed high school.
Cooper, the current Wetumka police chief, said Autumn Jackson’s involvement in town financial matters was another concern he turned over to the FBI.
“Autumn Jackson inside city hall was receiving money for Court Clerk stuff,” Cooper said. “We found receipts where she took money and wrote it out. And the money is being moved around, which is really suspicious.”
James Jackson said Wednesday morning that Autumn Jackson had simply helped accept payments of check or money order at City Hall when the town was without a treasurer.
“Yeah, she moved [money] from one desk to another,” Jackson said of the woman he referred to as his “daughter.”
‘He has literally just torn us apart’
Before April, Chitwood and Donna Dyer knew elections had consequences. What they didn’t know is just how fractured their hometown would become after the Wetumka City Council election that saw 278 voters choose new blood for three of five council seats. Soon after the election, the two other councilmembers resigned, leaving James Jackson to appoint Marshall and Fixico. Their swearing in occurred on a Sunday with little public awareness, according to Dyer.
“We’re a pretty close-knit community, and he has literally just torn us apart,” said Dyer, president of the Wetumka Chamber of Commerce and CEO of the East Central Oklahoma Family Health Center. “It is neighbor against neighbor, family against family. The accusations (…) You’ve got a group of people that is so much a staunch supporter of him. And then you’ve got another group that is so far against him.”
The group of more than 80 people who jammed into Wetumka City Hall on Tuesday evening were not for Jackson.
“Don’t we have a rail we can put him on?” an older Wetumka resident yelled from the back of the room.
By phone after Tuesday’s meeting, James Jackson said he had no idea what had transpired and that he “had a prior engagement” preventing his attendance.
“Most of those people you see at the meeting aren’t from the town,” Jackson said. “They’re angry. They’re mad.”
He said if he walked around town during the day, it would be plain to see that the actual residents of Wetumka support his efforts to address municipal water problems and high electricity rates.
“My wife and I are both retired from the United States Army. We moved into a town and literally just clashed with the people that were running the government,” Jackson said. “It went all over town that we told them we are not going to put up with that. And when we did, droves of people came to us and said, ‘You’ve got to help us. We don’t know anybody who can fix it.’”
Dyer, a lifelong Wetumka resident whose late husband served 12 years on the town’s council, agreed with the first part of Jackson’s assessment.
“They have been crossways with the city ever since they moved here,” she said. “I have never met somebody in my life that can play the victim as well as he can.”
Dyer and Chitwood agreed that the town’s recent rift has been distressing.
“It’s hard to describe,” Chitwood said. “Just think of your hometown. You’ve known all these people all your life, you’ve known all these families and kids you grew up with, and all of a sudden everybody hates everybody, and everybody’s fighting and arguing, and you’re not really sure why.”
The results, however, have been more clear:
* terminated police chiefs;
* secrecy involving the city budget;
* a confrontation between Dyer and Autumn Jackson during a September health fair;
* disputes over the Jacksons’ desire to charge vendors at Wetumka’s Sucker Day, an annual celebration of the time more than 60 years ago when a man named F. Bam Morrison swindled townspeople into financing a circus he never produced;
* and the recent drug arrest of an individual driving the city electrician’s truck.
“That was blatant disrespect,” said Hinkley of the weekend incident that left the city truck impounded.
Leading up to the April election, Hinkley had appeared in photographs with Jackson on a series of letters Jackson mailed to all Wetumka residents. One of those letters appears below.
Tuesday, Hinkley attempted to be measured in his remarks about Jackson.
“He got the electric down (…) He’s helped with the lagoon project. He’s got the trees trimmed from the lines,” Hinkley said. “He’s done some good, but I just think he’s gotten a little carried away with himself, to say the least.”