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VOTED OUT: Veteran elections administrator fired

After nearly 30 years on the job, Washington County Administrator of Elections Connie Sinks was fired Feb. 10 by a majority vote of the Election Commission.
The firing came during a specially called meeting that served as a continuation of the previous week’s meeting, one which saw its own share of controversy.
Chairman Janet Willis reconvened the Feb. 3 meeting in the Jonesborough courthouse on Feb. 10 by announcing she had something to say.
“I am speaking only for myself. I appreciate being appointed to the commission by (State) Representatives Matthew Hill and Dale Ford, and I feel they have confidence in me to do what is lawful,” Willis said. “As chairman of this commission, I would like to enumerate the reasons for the decision I will be asking you to make. Over the past three years, I have observed several problems in the administration of this election office.”
Willis then read her list of problems, which include a hostile work environment created by the administrator, false accusations against the commissioners regarding Sunshine Law violations, the use of employees to run personal errands for the administrator, and misplaced keys to ballot boxes.
“I have requested the State Commissioner of Elections schedule an audit of this office as soon as possible,” Willis continued. “In light of the foregoing and other matters not proper for an administrator, I am asking this commission to terminate Ms. Sinks immediately.”
In a roll call vote, commissioners Leslie Lacy and Sue Chinouth voted against firing Sinks while commissioners Willis, Jon Ruetz and Thomas Graham voted in favor of the termination.
The three commissioners who voted to ax Sinks are the same three, who the previous week week, Sinks accused of meeting in private and working with election office workers Rebecca Vines and Maybell Stewart behind Sinks’ back.
Sinks fired Vines last week and demoted Stewart for their alleged actions.
Following the vote to fire Sinks, Willis requested one Republican and one Democrat escort Sinks out of the building.
When election commissioners took no action, Sinks stood and calmly asked, “Would you rather have a sheriff’s deputy? I’ll be glad to wait.”
Ruetz and Graham escorted Sinks across the hall to her office, where the 28-year veteran of the county elections operation was allowed to take only her purse. All other personal belongings, commissioners said, will be forwarded to her.
While waiting for the commissioners to return to the second floor courtroom, the Herald & Tribune, which was the only newspaper at the meeting at the time of Sinks’ firing, asked Willis how the Election Commission planned to proceed.
“We will appoint a temporary administrator and take resumes,” she said. “We plan to fill (the position) immediately. We have some people who have worked in the office and are competent.”
In response to a request by the H&T for Willis to further explain the “hostile work environment” she said Sinks created at the elections office, Willis said, “I’d prefer not to answer any more questions at this time.”
After the commission had reassembled, Stewart, who Sinks had just last week demoted, was called into the courtroom.
“It is with great pride,” Ruetz said, “that I make a motion that Maybell Stewart be appointed temporary administrator.”
Graham seconded the motion, which passed with unanimous approval.
Commissioners then called in Sheila Hayes, who works with the lists of election workers, and spent almost three hours appointing election-day officials for the March 6 primaries.
In a phone interview following last week’s meeting, Sinks said she had already called District Attorney Tony Clark and asked him to file an order to secure all the election records until the state audit requested by Willis is conducted.
“I worry about the records being tampered with,” she explained. “I don’t worry about the audit.”
Sinks does have some concerns about the upcoming election though.
“The administrator is the one who brings everything together. It’s a very technical job, and it requires a mind that can multitask and work under incredible stress,” she said. “We’ve got an election in 23 days, and nobody knows what they’re doing.”
Sinks disagreed with Willis’ accusation of her creating a hostile work environment, offering more than one example of instances in which she allowed employees to work flex schedules to accommodate a sick family member or fulfill other personal obligations.
She also said she had no idea what Willis was referring to in her accusation of using employees to run personal errands.
“If they were going out for lunch, they might have brought me something back,” Sinks said. “They weren’t picking up my dry cleaning.”
As far as the keys to ballot boxes being misplaced, Sinks said it is the responsibility of the commissioners who keep the keys in their personal possession.
“I certify every seal (on the voting machines), but I never touch a lock,” she said.
Despite the outcome, Sinks said she stands by her previous accusations and doesn’t regret how she handled herself in the situation.
“I’ve done the best I can do, she said. “I told the public what was going on, and I knew the consequences.”