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Longtime Washington County election administrator fired

Gary B. Gray • Feb 11, 2012 at 1:12 AM

After more than 28 years at the helm and five days away from the start of early voting, the Washington County Election Commission voted 3-2 to fire Administrator of Elections Connie Sinks.

“I had no warning,” Sinks said by telephone Friday.

Exactly one week ago, Sinks fired one staff member and demoted another for sending a handwritten cover letter to three commission members in November asking that they use accompanying materials for a meeting that may or may not have occurred. An employee found the letter in a box of documents that were about to be shredded.

At that meeting, Sinks informed commissioners of her actions and blasted Chairwoman Janet Willis, and commissioners Jon Ruetz and Thomas Graham for being the recipients, or intended recipients of the letter without her knowledge and for not providing public notice of a meeting.

All three commissioners denied receiving the letter, a copy of which clearly shows them as the intended recipients. They also denied there was ever a meeting.

When she showed up Friday morning for a continuation of last week’s meeting, the same three people voted to fire her after Willis stood and read aloud a prepared statement that asked for a vote on Sinks’ termination.

“I had a feeling they were working behind my back,” Sinks said. “I felt like there would be retribution. Basically, they felt I had humiliated the commissioners for saying they hadn’t put out a public notice. Janet told me to take my pocketbook and leave my office keys and that they’d see that I got my personal items back. I went to my office and was out of there in about five minutes.”

For the record, two Republicans and one Democrat voted Sinks out; one Republican and one Democrat voted for Sinks to stay.

Willis said Sinks had created a hostile work environment and had not acted properly in firing Rebecca Vines, an employee who wrote the letter and was later fired, and Maybell Stewart, an office manager at the time who was demoted because she was named in the letter.

“I have handwritten this cover letter because I didn’t want to risk it with the office computer,” Vines wrote in the letter. She 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.”

Stewart, who lost her title as office manager, and had her pay lowered, now will serve as interim administrator after being appointed to that post Friday by commissioners. Stewart, in turn, reinstated Vines.

Willis said late Friday that Stewart’s salary has not been set. Sinks was making about $66,000 a year.

Willis stated that the accusations against at least three commissioners were false and that there had been no meetings of commissioners outside the usual scheduled meeting. She also said Sinks has used employees to run personal errands, which is unlawful, and that “every election is cause for concern.”

Willis, Ruetz and Graham politely refused to comment further on the firing and deferred the Johnson City Press to the statement.

Sinks also wrote Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins last week explaining the situation as she saw it. In the letter, Sinks told Goins that she had started looking for another job in December. However, she said some Republican County Commissioners asked her to stay and she decided to at least see this coming election to the end.

“I love my job. I’ve trained hard,” she wrote.

Goins’ office confirmed Friday that he had spoken to several election commissioners before the firing and advised them it was a local matter.

Commission Secretary Leslie Lacy and commissioner Suzanne Chinouth voted against Sinks’ dismissal.

“I didn’t see any reason for it,” Chinouth said after the meeting. “For us to have done this now, so close to elections, it puts us in a tough spot.”

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

“You’ve got to be willing to accept the consequences when you speak out,” Sinks said. “If I was rehired, I’d fire more people. They’re underhanded. But that’s the order of politics today. I think Nashville will probably send a former elections administrator up here to run the elections.

“It can be done. Do I think the election commission can do it? No. But as I’ve said, I serve at their pleasure, and I have to accept this.”

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