Sinks’ firing has smell of political intrigue

Robert Houk • Feb 20, 2012 at 8:34 AM

About a year ago, I mentioned in a column that Washington County Administrator of Elections Connie Sinks was supposedly on a list of election officials targeted for dismissal by Republican Party leaders.

I’d heard that the GOP hierarchy had instructed Republican-led election commissions across the state to dismiss election administrators hired by formerly Democratic-controlled boards.

At the time, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told me he knew of no such pressure being placed on local election commissions, but added that these positions were “political jobs.”

Several election administrators were indeed fired across the state, but Sinks managed to hang on to her job.

That is until this month when she called out three election commissioners for a possible violation of the Sunshine Law. It was a gutsy move, and one that she paid for with her job.

A week after confronting Election Commissioners Janet Willis and Jon Ruetz (both Republican members) and Thomas Graham (a Democrat) about a hand-written letter that listed them as recipients of materials for a secret meeting that the correspondence indicated was held in November (the three denied any knowledge of the letter or holding a secret meeting), those same members fired Sinks.

A week later, those same members fired Sinks. It was a clumsy vote, and it may not have been legal.

Witnesses said it was Sinks herself who pointed out that no second was ever made to the motion for her dismissal. A second was made on the motion by Ruetz after the vote was recorded. The original motion, however, was never reconsidered. I’m not sure that is in keeping with Robert’s Rules of Order.

The two other members of the county Election Commission said they were surprised and disappointed with the way Sinks was treated by their colleagues. Both Sue Chinouth and Leslie Lacy voted against Sinks’ dismissal. Chinouth, a Republican with 12 years on the board, said Sinks “deserved more respect” for her 28 years of service.

“They have the right to fire her, but I think they went too far,” Chinouth told me last week. “Escorting her out the way they did was just not right.”

There are a lot of folks who think the same way. Among them is a former county commissioner who told me she was disappointed to see someone with Sinks’ stellar reputation for being a competent election official treated so rudely by three of her bosses.

Another person called to tell me the wrong election official was escorted from the courthouse. “In my opinion it stinks to high heaven and the skunks are still there,” she said.

In the meantime, Lacy, a Democrat, said she is trying to concentrate on early voting for the March 6 Republican Primary. She declined to speculate on the politics involved in Sinks’ dismissal.

“I just want to see that we continue to have the kind of well-run elections that the voters of Washington County have grown accustomed to,” Lacy said.

The politics of the vote and the possible repercussions are indeed intriguing.

For instance, many are wondering what (if anything) was promised to Graham for his vote. Will his decision to join the two Republicans cost Graham his position on the board? I’ve heard scuttlebutt that there is a movement by some county Democrats to have him removed from the Election Commission.

Walter Buford, the new chairman of the Washington County Democratic Party, told me last week he would not even speculate on the Election Commission matter until he has all the facts.

“I’d rather not make any comments until I am aware of all the intricacies,” he said.

And what about the future of Willis and Ruetz on the board? There’s been a struggle inside the Washington County Republican Party in recent years between far-right forces aligned with state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, and GOPers who are not. The reappointments of Willis, Ruetz and even Chinouth could be affected by which side prevails in this battle.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said he had no inkling that Sinks was about to be fired and was surprised to learn of her dismissal. “I heard about it afterward when I got a call from Sue Chinouth,” Crowe said.

The senator said he and his legislative colleagues from Washington County (Hill and state Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough) had not planned to make any changes to their appointments to the Election Commission next year. Still, Crowe said he feels he has a duty to “find out what’s really going on” with the Election Commission.

I heard from a number of readers last week who said they would also like to get to the bottom of this.

They are disturbed by talk of possible secret meetings held by three members of the Election Commission and by a report that at least two commissioners were seen in a restricted area of the courthouse after hours.

One avenue of investigation might be for the state Election Commission to hold a show-cause hearing in regards to the actions Willis, Ruetz and Graham took in firing Sinks.

Citizens of Washington County who think this is a good idea should contact the state election coordinator’s office in Nashville at (615) 741-7956 or by email at tennessee.elections@tn.gov to lodge an official complaint.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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