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Election Commission official fires staff member, demotes another

Gary B. Gray • Feb 4, 2012 at 12:09 AM

Washington County Election Commission Administrator of Elections Connie Sinks fired one staff member and demoted another Friday for sending a handwritten cover letter to three members in November asking that they use accompanying materials for a meeting that may or may not have occurred.

“You can’t run elections when you don’t trust your staff,” Sinks said.

After consultation with County Attorney John Rambo, Sinks fired Rebecca Vines, an administrative assistant, for insubordination, claiming the employee alerted the three members about the November meeting and that public notice was never given.

The letter was discovered in a box of documents that were ready to be shredded.

In the letter, Vines writes that she is including a list of 2012 election information prepared for the meeting and that “I have handwritten this cover letter because I didn’t want to risk it with the office computer.” Vines also wrote that “Maybell and I wanted to get this material to you quickly so you will be ready for your lunch meeting this coming Monday.”

Vines, who was not available for comment, said she didn’t think she had done anything wrong, according to Sinks.

Maybell Stewart, who formerly held the title of office manager, was stripped of that position, told not to come to work Monday and her rate of pay was dropped from $16.89 per hour to $15.89 per hour.

Sinks told the Johnson City Press that she felt these members had met in violation of the state’s open meeting laws. But at Friday’s Election Commission meeting, all three members denied receiving the letter or attending a meeting.

At this point, there is no proof a meeting was held. If it did happen, they would be in violation of the Tennessee Sunshine Law.

The members questioned by Sinks include Republicans Jon Ruetz and Chairwoman Janet Willis, and Democrat Thomas Graham. The remaining members are Secretary and Democrat Leslie Lacy and Republican Suzanne Chinouth.

“So you’ve made the assumption, and we’ve seen the evidence of your compassion and concern,” Ruetz told Sinks after reviewing a copy of the handwritten letter.

Sinks openly accused Ruetz of undermining her authority. Though neither person lost their tempers, it was clear they were perhaps not the best of friends.

“We have not met,” Willis said about an unannounced meeting.

Graham also said he had never seen the letter from Vines.

“I do not regret the firing,” Sinks said shortly after the meeting. “I would do it again.”

Sinks also wrote Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins Friday explaining the situation as she saw it.

“I have had thoughts there were matters going on behind my back but had no proof,” she wrote.

She reiterated those thoughts at the meeting, saying how disappointed she was. She said she had walked into the room where documents are shredded and found Vines and commission member Jon Ruetz there. Sinks said a temporary worker found the cover letter a few days later and brought it to her.

“I work at their pleasure and they work at mine,” said Sinks, who has held the position for nearly 29 years. “They (commission members) can vote to fire me.”

Ruetz was asked if he had any intentions on working to remove Sinks from office.

“Not until this,” was his first response.

“No,” he uttered a few seconds later.

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