Published: February 24, 2010
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said he was disappointed that the Republican members of the Rutherford County Election Commission may cost taxpayers more than $32,000 for trying to replace the current election administrator.
A federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Rutherford County Election Administrator Hooper Penuel and several other county election administrators in Tennessee contending Republicans violated their constitutional rights by conspiring to treat their jobs as political patronage.
“Hard-earned tax dollars could have been put to better use,” Forrester said. “There is no excuse for what they did. Mr. Penuel did an excellent job as the election administrator. They had no business trying to fire him just because they believed him to be a Democrat. That is taking partisan politics too far.
Rutherford County Democratic Chairman Jonathon Fagan said the Republicans on the commission pulled a “switch-a-roo.”
Walker proposed using budgeted money saved by the local Democratic and Republican parties by holding caucuses instead of primaries for the County General Election in August. The parties’ decision saved the county $100,000.
“The Republicans and Democrats saved this money and the Republican members of the election commission spent it on themselves,” Fagan said.
Fagan contends the Republicans – Chairman Tom Walker, Doris Jones and Oscar Gardner – were sued as individuals, as well as in their professional capacity.
“The election commission in not held liable. It’s the individuals in this suit,” he said.
To complicate matters more, state law is unclear on how and who is responsible for paying the legal fees.
State law outlines how and who must pay if an election commission is sued in the case of contested elections, but not in a partisan employment dispute, like Penuel’s.
“At a time when our communities and our state face serious financial challenges, why would you jeopardize precious resources to cover an illegal act by a partisan board? We need to focus our energy on creating more jobs, improving our schools and keeping our communities safe.”
Penuel agreed to end his participation in the federal suit if the commission would pay him $7,500 to cover his attorney and litigation fees, which the election commission accepted Monday evening. Republicans hold a 3-2 majority on the election commission.
Last year, Penuel filed suit against the Republican members of the Rutherford County Elections Commission for allegedly breaking state and federal law by attempting to replace him with another political appointee. The suit resulted in an injunction against the commission preventing them from appointing a new administrator.
Penuel also agreed to retire from his position as election administrator no later than Dec. 31 of this year. The election commission decided by a 3-2 vote to use another $25,000 to cover legal fees incurred by the board in defense of the suit, according to press accounts of the meeting.
Republicans gained control of the state Legislature in November 2008 and now control local election commissions in all 95 counties.
“You would think that someone who has the wealth of experience and knowledge of the election process that Mr. Penuel has would be a commodity,” Forrester said. “This kind of display of raw political patronage is not only damaging our political process, but it is also putting our communities in a financial bind. No wonder we have so many people disillusioned with the political process.”