The Election Commission, following a lengthy meeting on Wednesday morning, voted 4-1 to terminate Administrator Kerry Steelman, who has been on leave recently. Jerry Summers was the only no vote, saying Mr. Steelman is innocent until proven guilty.
Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden said Mr. Steelman is "a nice guy who made some positive strides for our office over five years. This office is a better place because he was here. It makes me sad at this point, but we have to take this action in order to take care of our greatest asset - our employees." He said morale was suffering under the current situation.
Mr. Walden said 10 of 12 employees interviewed by county Human Resources said Mr. Steelman had mistreated them or they had seen someone mistreated. The report recommended his termination.
Harry Burnette, attorney for Mr. Steelman, hit the report, saying it was not backed up by any documentation and a number of the allegations "are simply false." He said it is planned to file an Americans Disability Lawsuit in behalf of Mr. Steelman. He said Mr. Steelman was in a very serious auto accident years earlier "and is lucky to be alive." He said the wreck aftermath includes seizures, especially during stressful situations.
Attorney Burnett said the report was initiated just after Mr. Steelman "wrote up" several top employees "because of their errors," including the current Acting Administrator Scott Allen. He said they "were very angry about it."
Mr. Walden said the uprising by the employees "didn't just happen. They said they had just had enough of it and had decided to tell it." He said, "I wish they had told us earlier. I don't think anyone should suffer in silence."
He said employees told of "fits of anger and rage and blackouts" on the part of Mr. Steelman, and Mr. Steelman had denied it.
Mr. Walden acknowledged that he ordered one of the writeups after one employee made a ballot mistake that caused Rep. Robin Smith's name not to be on a small number of ballots when it should have been.
Attorney Burnette said Mr. Steelman made only four hires during his tenure, including three women - a Latino, a Black and a White.
The meeting opened with the commission taking care of some routine business, then adjourning for a private meeting with attorney Justin Furrow. Mr. Summers, who is also a lawyer, declined to go to the session, saying, "This ought to be discussed out in the sunshine, not in a smoke-filled back room."
Mr. Summers said, "The main thing is that we maintain the integrity of the electoral process" and not deter anyone from voting due to perceived office turmoil and "be discouraged by a circus."
Of Mr. Steelman, he said, "He comes from a fine family and he is entitled to the presumption of innocence. He said Mr. Steelman had not had a chance to rebut the report.
Mr. Walden, after getting the county HR report, said he met with Mr. Steelman and had a "town hall" meeting with employees in addition to talking to some individually.
He said the report was shared with Mr. Steelman and his attorney and they were given two weeks to respond. Attorney Burnette delivered their rebuttal to the commission on Wednesday and asked the commission not to vote before reading it. Otherwise, he said the treatment of Mr. Steelman was "like the Star Chambers of the 1500s."
Mr. Walden said the office remains in good shape and "is a model for other election offices around the state."
Attorney Burnette recommended that Mr. Steelman be given three months of severance pay and six months of insurance. Mr. Walden said he had not problem with that proposal, but said the attorneys could work it out.
There was also a motion to make Mr. Furrow the permanent attorney for the Election Commission and that was approved. Mr. Summers said Mr. Walden had a possible conflict of interest because the Furrow law firm represents his office.
The county attorney had been assigned to represent the commission, but officials said that had not been working out.
Mr. Walden said the Election Commission would interview candidates for the post after the first of the year.