The Lester home had three campaign signs in the yard on April 18-22. Photo courtesy of Sam Stockard
A Rutherford County Election commissioner raised concerns last week about campaign signs posted in the county election administrator’s front yard.
Election signs for Sheriff Robert Arnold, district attorney general candidate Jennings Jones and public defender candidate Andy Brunelle remained in the Osborne Lane yard of Nicole Lester, administrator of elections for Rutherford County, even after Election Commissioner Johnny Taylor brought up the matter during Monday’s Election Commission meeting. They were gone early Thursday.
Johnny Taylor, a Democrat on the commission, said it was brought to his attention that Lester had a number of signs in her yard, and he felt “in order to uphold the integrity of the elections” and maintain neutrality that Lester, a Republican, should remove them.
Election Commission Chairman Ransom Jones, also a Republican, noted, “It probably doesn’t look good.”
Taylor added that he would be “more emphatic” if Rutherford County were in the midst of the general election instead of the May 6 Republican primary, which is in early voting until Thursday.
But, he noted, “Even on the Republican side, she needs to show as much neutrality as possible for the integrity of the vote.”
Lester simply said, “Thank you,” to Taylor and declined to comment on the matter when asked by a reporter.
After last Monday’s meeting, Chairman Jones and Election Commissioner David Edwards, also a Republican, took a soft stance on the election signs in Lester’s yard.
“I don’t think signs mean a whole lot,” Jones said, adding he allows anyone who asks to put signs on his property. A sign for his son, Jennings, was among those in Lester’s yard, along with one for Sheriff Arnold, whose chief administrator, Joe Russell, is Lester’s husband.
“I think she’s able to be neutral,” Jones said.
Said Edwards, “I’m a lot more concerned about her character than the name on a sign in her yard, and her character in this job has been impeccable.”
State law does not prohibit election administrators from putting election signs on their property. The Tennessee election coordinator declined to comment last week on whether it could pose a conflict of interest or lack of neutrality.
Rutherford County has no ethics rules, either, that prohibit election administrators or commissioners from putting campaign signs on their property.
But those running against the candidates whose signs were in Lester’s yard weren’t quite as understanding as Republican elections commissioners.
“I think it’s completely inappropriate,” said Bob Asbury, a Republican candidate for sheriff. “That’s supposed to be an unbiased position. It makes me concerned about the vote.”
Murfreesboro attorney Chuck Ward, who is running for district attorney general against Jennings Jones in the Republican primary, said the situation would be similar to workers at the Office of Elections wearing buttons supporting candidates inside the building, and “they are the ones tabulating all of the votes.”
Ward also compared election administrators to judges hearing court cases.
“They have to show the appearance of being impartial,” he said. “The appearance goes a long way.”
Asbury also said he felt it was a conflict of interest for Lester to be serving as administrator of elections since her husband is the sheriff’s chief administrator.
Taylor said he raised that issue when Lester was appointed administrator of elections three years ago. But he pointed out that Ransom Jones is now chairing the commission even though his son is running for district attorney general, so he figures that idea is dead.
Chairman of the commission for 22 years until Republicans took over the majority four years ago, Taylor said he once tried to persuade the Election Commission to adopt a code of ethics. It never passed.
Taylor recalled a time when he asked former Election Commissioner Doris Jones to recuse herself from the commission when her husband, Clyde, ran for a seat on the Smyrna City Commission. She declined, according to Taylor, and the Election Commission wound up having to hold a run-off when Jones tied with another candidate.
Taylor remains adamant about the need for some sort of county-adopted ethics code for election officials. Even as a staunch Democrat, Taylor said he has never put up a sign for a candidate because of his position on the Election Commission.
The signs in Lester’s yard imply “favoritism,” said Taylor, noting he brought up the matter “because it was the right thing to do.”