Election commissioner questions campaign signs in Lester’s yard

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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.”

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Members Opinions:
April 25, 2014 at 10:46pm
Nice job finding a way to target the Sheriff and a republican, Sam. How can you dare question the integrity of Mrs. Russell, who has done a great job, not to mention having the audacity to actually question the right of a citizen to express their political beliefs at their house! And of course the people who's signs are not there are going to say they don't like it!! Any chance you get, right? But... now the Russell's have been harassed, and I have heard that someone has stopped at the house and scared the children by cursing about the signs. No one would have ever known (or cared) about who's house it was. You and the POST had to put the very detailed picture and the name of the street in your story. Guess what? Mr. Russell is a Deputy. It is a against TN Law for the Media to reveal the home address of a Law Enforcement Officer. I hope they charge you.
April 27, 2014 at 9:47pm
Mr rc59. Guess what? Mr. Russell is not Deputy. In fact he is not a Law Enforcement Officer at all. Just because he is part of the sheriff's department and one of Sheriff Arnolds puppets doesn't make him a deputy. So thank you Sam Stockard for your informative article.
April 28, 2014 at 2:07pm
With the appearance of campaign signs in the yard of Election head Lester, calling for people to vote for the son of the Election Commission Chairman (her boss),the current sheriff who supervises her husband and a candidate for Public Defender demonstrates partiality in the first degree. Apparently we are now seeing the true local Republican "Righteous Right," who touts perfection, honesty, integrity and impeccable character. Shame on the Election Commission Chairman who supervises Mrs. Lester and the other majority commission members for allowing this to happen. Republicans should be furious! Kudos to former Democrat Chairman Taylor, Reporter Sam Stockard and the "Murfreesboro Post" for bringing this unfortunate blatant demonstration of perceived partiality to your readers attention. Perception of "doing the right thing" in this case should prevail, always. Neutrality should prevail always, especially at the Election Office. Now, where has Jones been? He needs to wake up! Is he oblivious to the outcome of the use of signs promoting various candidates. He needs to take a drive round the county and observe the thousands of political signs blighting the countryside if he doesn't think signs mean anything to candidates. Favoritism has no place in the Election Commission. Who knows what we can expect next from that office? Can candidates trust the vote count? An improvement would be for Election Chairman Jones and Administrator Lester to submit their resignations. Immediately.
May 02, 2014 at 7:56am
Thanks Sam for exposing Nicole Russell as being a Republican who sullied the offices of the Election Commission by supporting certain Republicans during a Republican primary. What a scoop! And a special thanks to our own "Eric Snowden" for his self righteous (tip).
May 02, 2014 at 7:57am
Thanks Sam for exposing Nicole as being a Republican who sullied the offices of the Election Commission by supporting certain Republicans during a Republican primary. What a scoop! And a special thanks to our own "Eric Snowden" for his self righteous (tip).
May 02, 2014 at 7:58am
Thanks Sam for exposing Nicole as being a Republican who sullied the offices of the Election Commission by supporting certain Republicans during a Republican primary. What a scoop! And a special thanks to our own "Eric Snowden" for his self righteous (tip).
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