Hamilton County fires elections administrator amid investigation

State election coordinator asks Rep. Hakeem for specifics on alleged local voter-suppression practices

Hamilton County Election Administrator Kerry Steelman / Staff file photo
Hamilton County Election Administrator Kerry Steelman / Staff file photo

The Hamilton County Election Commission voted Wednesday to terminate Administrator Kerry Steelman after a brief leave of absence.

Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden confirmed Wednesday afternoon that Steelman, who has been on voluntary leave following conduct complaints by subordinates, was fired by the commission as a result of an investigation.

The county's human resources department had not provided details on the complaints or a copy of the report as of Wednesday.

Steelman was hired to the role in 2014 and has overseen 13 elections in the county.

Commission Member Jerry Summers, who has served as legal counsel for - or a member of - the commission since 1996, was the sole dissenting vote on the termination.

"I just think before the decision was made that he, like anyone else in our system, is presumed to be innocent," Summers told the Times Free Press late Wednesday."I just felt like we ought to have both sides."

Summers said he was concerned about fairness to Steelman and impact on the election.

"The two things I was concerned about was maintaining confidence in the system for those who want to vote for whoever they want to vote for," Summers said. "And Kerry Steelman was entitled to a fair hearing."

Steelman's attorney told the Times Free Press Wednesday that the county's human resources report made 23 accusations against Steelman, who was only asked about eight of them throughout the investigation, and included no documentation or proof of the complaints.

"So the HR report included very little information and no documentation, which is disappointing," attorney Harry Burnette said on Wednesday. "And we submitted a response today that was never read before the decision was made."

Now Burnette says Steelman must consider whether or not to pursue legal action against the county.

"I think he has a classic Americans with Disabilities Act complaint given the mention of his seizure behavior," Burnette said, citing complaints of Steelman's shaking, fidgeting and redness of the face under pressure. "He was in an accident as a young guy and now outside pressures cause his seizure activity to get worse, like having to deal with COVID-19 [and] changes to the election."

Burnette said that Steelman was "highly regarded" during the commission meeting and was "the best thing that ever happened" to the election commission.

Summers said the commission, in agreement with Steelman's attorney, will make the related human resources report public record and that attorneys on both sides will make severance arrangements.

During the meeting, the election commission also voted 4-1, again with Summers dissenting, to hire an attorney "indefinitely."

Among those attending Wednesday's election commission meeting was state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat who last week called on Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, to investigate what he called "troubling allegations" from others that the Hamilton County Election Commission is "engaging in practices causing voter suppression" and that there are "discriminatory hiring practices" that have resulted in a lack of adequate racial and partisan diversity at the local Republican-controlled commission.

That drew criticisms last week from Hargett as well as early Wednesday from State Election Coordinator Mark Goins, another Republican who said in his letter to Hakeem that he has "no reason to question" the Hamilton County Election Commission's ability "to ensure a free and fair election."

photo Tennessee State Election Coordinator Mark Goins / File photo

In his letter, Goins said that "although you mentioned there was a laundry list of concerns that had been expressed to you, no laundry list was provided." And he said Hakeem should provide details.

Hakeem fired back Thursday afternoon, calling both Hargett and Goins' criticisms "odd," adding that "I didn't know that you have to as a representative investigate and come to a conclusion and give it to them before they would actually look into a matter.

"What it says to me is, this is just my perspective, there is an indifference to this representative and the people he represents when I feel I have to do the leg work when I brought to you what I considered legitimate concerns from my constituents," said Hakeem, the lone Democratic and lone Black legislator in Hamilton County.

And, Hakeem added, "I question whether I can get any action out of the Secretary of State's office. I will be making inquiries myself. And we'll see what I can glean myself. When you ask in my view a legitimate question of an entity I work with and they choose not to do so, I think it is paramount on my part to get some answers myself."

Hakeem also said that while his concerns didn't stem from the complaint or complaints about Steelman and the ensuing dismissal process - he said he doesn't know details - he feels justified in taking the issue to the state level, especially after personally watching the election commission's handling earlier Thursday of Steelman's firing.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

photo In this 2017 staff file photo, Kerry Steelman, Hamilton County Election Administrator, speaks alongside Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett in Hixson, Tenn.

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