Sumner County, Tennessee, poised to scrap human resources department

The Sumner County Administration building is seen May 3 in Gallatin, Tenn., In Sumner County, a local Constitutional Republicans group won a majority in 2022 on the County Commission. The group members have waged a political war on fellow Republicans they view as insufficiently conservative and are feuding with the countys election commission in ways that could affect preparations for the 2024 presidential election. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Sumner County is poised to dissolve its human resources department and fire its director, one of the latest steps taken by a slate of "constitutional Republicans" elected to local office in 2022 on a platform of ending business as usual and limiting public spending.

The budget committee of the Sumner County Commission voted in May to scrap the department, a move that would leave one of the county's largest employers without a dedicated human resources team.

The vote, part of a broader budget-making process, still requires approval by the full commission. The department's elimination would save the county about $100,000 annually.

Cheryl Lewis-Smith, the county's human resources director, called the actions a "travesty." She was distraught, concerned about the welfare of Sumner County employees and the potential liability risks to the county, Lewis-Smith said as she stood before members of the county's budget committee.

"There was no factual data, analysis, quantitative information discussed or shared as to what formal basis was established to make this recommendation," she said. "So I'm left to wonder, why am I being targeted?"

Lewis-Smith, who is 58 and Black, questioned whether it had to do with her age, race or her efforts to do her job even in the face of adversity.

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Lewis-Smith said she has been actively thwarted by other county leaders, who denied her access to personnel files and other documents necessary to carry out her duties.

She did not respond to a Lookout request for further comment.

Several commissioners, however, said their decision was based on the ineffectiveness of the department and questioned why Lewis-Smith, who has decades of human resources experience, was unable to accomplish basic tasks, including creating job descriptions and developing personnel policies in the two years since the human resources department was first created.

"My question is, if a person of your caliber couldn't get those things implemented in two years — we clearly have done something, the way we implemented this had some problems," Commission Chairman Matthew Shoaf said. He said his decision was about the position, not the person.

David Klein was among at least four commissioners, including Shoaf, who said they did not have a full grasp of what the human resources department is tasked with doing before voting in favor of eliminating it.

"I'm old enough to remember when there weren't HR departments in private businesses," Klein said. "I don't even understand today what they do."

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Under the proposal, human resources duties going forward will be shared by the county's finance and law departments.

Tennessee counties are not required to have a dedicated human resources department and, based on anecdotal evidence, the majority of counties do not, according to a spokesperson for the County Technical Assistance Service at the University of Tennessee.

Those that do are likely to be the largest among the state's 95 counties. In population, Sumner County ranks as Tennessee's ninth-largest county and has approximately 1,000 employees.

Hamilton County, the state's fourth-largest county, does have a separate human resources department.

All 24 of Sumner County's commissioners are Republicans, but 14 of 17 commissioners newly elected in the August local election were endorsed by Sumner County Constitutional Republicans.

The group's biblically based platform includes establishing a Christian foundation for governance and putting brakes on growth and development in the county just to the north of Nashville. They have set themselves apart from traditional Republicans, and frictions between the two groups have spilled out on social media, with many longtime Republican leaders have been called "Rinos" by Constitutional Republican supporters. Rino is short for "Republican in name only."

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The Constitutional Republicans' group, which also backed winning school board candidates, has been a key driver of debates over removing books from school libraries and a successful vote to insert the words "Judeo-Christian" into a guiding document for the County Commission's work.

The commission's actions this year have also drawn legal challenges, including from the county's election commission, which filed suit last month alleging the commission was interfering in election operations. The commission is also defending itself in a separate lawsuit over its decision to transfer a historic property on public land to citizens counted among the supporters of Constitutional Republican elected officials.