The Rutherford County Election Commission is set to decide next week whether to keep Nicole Lester as administrator of elections or let her go for “unsatisfactory job performance,” according to Chairman Ransom Jones.
During three years as the county’s top appointed election official, Lester has shown “blatant disregard” for county policy in regard to keeping work-hour records, in addition to displaying poor office leadership, which has led to “terrible” employee morale, Jones said.
“She no longer enjoys the confidence of the five-person commission,” Jones noted.
At a meeting scheduled next Thursday, the five-member commission will decide whether to fire Lester, allow her to resign or reconcile the situation and keep her, according to Jones, who raised the matter at the June 9 Election Commission meeting.
The issue was initiated, Jones said, after records showed Lester was working only one or two hours but collecting pay for a full day of work. Even though she is a salaried and “exempt” employee, Lester was instructed to keep regular “office hours,” to clock in on her computer and rarely edit her work time, according to a letter Jones wrote in November 2012 and placed in her personnel file.
In the letter, Jones wrote, “You have used your status as an ‘exempt’ employee to comply technically with Rutherford County employee personnel regulations as it regards to time accountability. You have not complied with the spirit of these regulations nor have you complied with prior instructions from me. Please remember that you serve at the pleasure of the five member Election Commission.”
Despite the letter, the problem persisted, according to Jones, who said this week, “She was coming and going when she wanted to.”
Lester, a Republican, was appointed to the post in 2011 after former Administrator of Elections Hooper Penuel stepped down after admitting he made the mistake of failing to schedule early voting on a Saturday during the 2010 election. She is set to make a salary of $92,640, based on the county’s population, in fiscal 2015.
The three-year administrator of elections defended herself in an interview at her office, saying she addressed all of the issues Chairman Jones raised and took seminars to improve her election office and leadership skills.
Lester said she “absolutely” believes the commission should keep her as administrator of elections.
“I feel good,” Lester said, about the job she’s done. “My conscience is clear. We’ve had open, honest and fair elections since I’ve been here … with no scandals.”
She pointed out that she handled new state law regarding photo IDs and redistricting in a presidential year while holding six elections, none of which have been challenged.
Lester noted that county policy states that “exempt” employees will be counted present if they work any part of the day, which complies with federal guidelines.
“I understand there’s a job to do and getting the job done, and I have certainly done that,” she said, adding she has two cell phones and is available 24 hours a day.
Mayor Ernest Burgess said Tuesday the issue surrounding Lester has been “under some sort of discussion and review for a while.” He said concerns about the hours she was working were brought to his attention as well as the Human Resources Department, and after looking into the matter they took it to Chairman Jones.
“Exempt” employees are supposed to work a certain number of hours a week, without overtime, and department heads are to report the time they work, according to Burgess. But historically in Rutherford County, they’ve been paid for a full day if they work any part of the day.
He noted, however, “If one does that with regularity, it’s not acceptable.”
Lester pointed out that the Election Office has not been a focal point of contention as it was in the time just before she was appointed.
Penuel’s last year was mired in controversy among the commission. He was appointed by a Democratic-controlled commission when that party held a majority in the Tennessee General Assembly. When the Republican Party took control of the Legislature, a majority of Republicans gained a 3-2 edge on the Rutherford County Election Commission. When Penuel was forced out, former Chairman Tom Walker became election administrator and Doris Jones the commission chairman for a short period.
Ransom Jones then succeeded Mrs. Jones as commission chair and led the effort to hire Lester.
Chairman Jones pointed out that this matter doesn’t involve personalities. “It’s not about politics,” he said. “It’s about job performance.”