Rutherford County Election Commission Chairman Ransom Jones said he took steps to determine whether the commission had a legal right to fire the administrator of elections in advance of last week’s decision.
Jones, a Republican, said he requested information from the county’s Human Resources Department, which sent it through with the county attorney for review, before he led the vote to fire Nicole Lester after three years on the job.
Commissioners voted 5-0 to terminate Lester last week, despite pleas from several county residents, including her father and husband, to keep her. Some argued that she had grounds to file a lawsuit against the commission over the firing.
But Jones said, “I think we’re on good legal ground.”
The administrator serves at the pleasure of the five-member commission, and Jones previously said Lester had lost the group’s confidence based on concerns about her work hours, management skills and low office morale.
Human Resources Department Director Sonya Stephenson said she provided information to Jones that he requested but first sent it through the county attorney’s office.
“It was not a Rutherford County decision. It was an Election Commission decision,” Stephenson said, noting the administrator is appointed by the commission. “They’re the only ones who have the power to decide.”
Problems with Lester did not stem necessarily from failure to follow her job description. Instead, they began with her work hours, according to Jones, who previously said she would come to the office for a couple of hours and then leave.
“It started off as time accountability and got worse,” Jones said. He put a letter in her personnel file in November 2012 ordering her to keep regular office hours, clock in on her computer and use few time edits, even though she was an “exempt” employee rather than an hourly worker.
During last week’s meeting, Lester brought records she said documented she worked more than the required 37.5 hours per week during 2011, 2012 and 2014. She acknowledged that during 2013 she worked about 150 hours less than required but was still over the minimum time for her three years.
The week before the vote, Lester sent commissioners a lengthy email detailing her work hours and the reasons she should keep her job. In a June 9 meeting, commissioners discussed three options, firing her, allowing her to resign or coming to some sort of reconciliation. But Jones said her letter did not contain one sentence of reconciliation that would enable her to stay on.
The Election Commission posted the job last week and is set to meet Monday at 5 p.m. to look at applications and possibly hire a candidate.
Four people had applied by noon Thursday:
- Lance Jenkins, of Murfreesboro, an employee in the Rutherford County Property Assessor’s Office and former candidate for Circuit Court clerk.
- Benjamin Carl Brown, of Murfreesboro, an employee of Medical Reimbursements of America.
- Eric Matthew Gilley, of Murfreesboro, an MTSU student.
- Bradley James Turner, of Smyrna, an employee of Healthstream Inc.
After Monday’s vote, as commissioners mulled the process for replacing her, Lester said it appeared either state Rep. Joe Carr or Alan Farley, an MTSU associate athletic director, were likely replacements.
Jones late last week said he did speak with Farley about the position after it became clear Lester would be fired. But he said he never talked to Carr, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Lamar Alexander.
“Alan Farley is probably going to apply, and I would probably hire him because he’s an outstanding candidate,” Jones said.
On the other hand, accusations that he spoke to Carr about the job are “absolutely ridiculous,” Jones said.
Carr was incredulous when contacted about the matter and said he probably isn’t even suited for the job.
“You talk about something being fabricated out of thin air, that is it,” he said.
Carr added that he couldn’t comment on Lester’s situation because he didn’t know enough about it.
In order to apply for the job, he would have to drop his Senate candidacy and resign from the state Legislature.
Farley, meanwhile, acknowledged he’d had a couple of election officials ask him if he would consider applying for the position. He previously served on the Election Commission.
“I’m happy doing what I’m doing at MTSU,” said Farley, adding he was caught by surprise when his name was mentioned.
Farley said he’s not in the market for a job change but would consider it, though he hadn’t fired off an application and resume.