On the advice of the county attorney the body rescinded its previous action and voted unanimously to rescind the firing of Elections Administrator Hooper Penuel. Then it approved, in a split vote, a measure to place him on administrative leave with pay until a public hearing can be held.
“I feel the violation was strong enough and did enough damage to the reputation of the county. … I’m not convinced he should stay in his position of administrator,” Chairman Tom Walker said during the special-called meeting Monday night.
Penuel’s firing came on the heels of the commission’s admission that it failed to open the required three Saturdays and was only open two of the required Saturdays leading up to the Aug. 5 election.
The commission failed to open for a minimum of three hours Saturday, July 17. The elections office staff was informed of the mistake Monday, July 19 when the Tennessee Election commission called asking for the day’s results.
“We’ve had 10 elections that were correct” under Penuel, Walker said. “This was not a rookie mistake.”
The mistake left the election open to challenge from either voters or candidates, but as of the 5 p.m. Monday deadline, no one had contested the results of the election.
When asked, Walker stopped short of the commission taking any responsibility for the mistake, which led to Penuel’s firing.
He quoted Tennessee state law, which says the elections administrator should have “knowledge of all current laws pertaining to the election process and any changes mandated by the general assembly, and apprising the election commission, office staff, candidates, the press and the public in general of this information.”
But state law also requires the election commission to designate polling places and times.
“I didn’t want this to happen,” Walker said. “But if I have to check him on everything, what’s the point in having him?”
Walker then pointed to evidence that has come to light, which he claims should have tipped Penuel to the mistake before it occurred.
“If Mr. Penuel would have called us and said ‘I screwed up. We screwed up.’ We could have fixed it,” Walker said.
Now the commission is stuck trying fix another possible screw up.
But by taking steps to rescind its earlier decision, the commission tried to clarify its own mistake.
After the body voted last week to fire Penuel, questions arose about whether the Republican members – Walker, Oscar Gardner and Doris Jones – violated the Tennessee Sunshine Law when they discussed firing the administrator before the meeting on Monday, Aug. 23.
County Attorney Jim Cope answered these questions Monday night, when he reviewed the Sunshine Law with the commission and made recommendations on its next steps.
Cope said the commission can make up for its possible law violation by rescinding its previous decision to fire Penuel, which it did in a unanimous vote, and schedule a hearing that shows “a open, fair decision-making process,” Cope said.
The commission had two more options after this decision: to let Penuel resume his duties or to place him on administrative leave with pay until the hearing can be held.
The commission chose administrative leave in a party-line vote, Republicans voting for, Democrats abstaining.
“In light of everything that has happened it would be better to not have him in this office,” Jones said in her motion to suspend the administrator.
Democratic member John Taylor disagreed, saying he’d rather keep Penuel and his expertise in the office with a major election looming in November.
“The election doesn’t hinge on (having) a certified administrator,” Walker said. Jones added the elections office didn’t have a certified administrator in 2000 and that election ran smoothly.
Walker said the commission can ask for the Tennessee Election Commission to provide oversight if needed.
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.