A Rutherford County Election Commission meeting is scheduled July 7 to discuss the election administrator’s job performance and decide whether to keep her.
The meeting is set for 5 p.m. at the Election Office on the Public Square, Election Commission Chairman Ransom Jones confirmed.
Commissioners are to evaluate Administrator of Elections Nicole Lester and vote whether to fire her, allow resignation or settle on a reconciliation plan that would enable her to hold the position. Lester is set to make $92,640 under the county’s fiscal 2015 budget, which is based on Rutherford County’s population.
During a June 9 meeting, Chairman Jones brought up concerns about what he termed Lester’s “unsatisfactory job performance.”
A meeting was originally scheduled for last Thursday but was postponed when Lester called the state’s Office of Open Records counsel to ask what elections commissioners are allowed to discuss in accordance with the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. The matter was brought up under “other business” during the June 9 meeting, and the counselor determined that the matter should have been listed on the agenda, even though no vote was taken.
Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge drafted suggested language for the next meeting to help the commission ensure it met state open meetings guidelines. The job evaluation and vote is clearly noted on the public notice, according to Jones.
Jones said after the June 9 meeting that during three years 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.
“She no longer enjoys the confidence of the five-person commission,” Jones said.
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, “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. 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 recently, saying she addressed all of the issues Chairman Jones raised and also took seminars to improve her election office and leadership skills.
Lester, who contends she has worked more hours than required, 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.
In a lengthy letter to election commissioners sent last week, Lester further defended her work hours and pointed out that many of the office problems stem from jealousy and pettiness among the staff.
Lester said she has gone by the county’s policy for work hours and if election commissioners disagree with the rules, they should try to change them.