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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 10/18/16. Kerry Steelman, Hamilton County Administrator of Elections, speaks about preparations the Election Commission made in preparation for an expected large early voter turnout. Steelman said they doubled the number of voting booths with 47 slots now available, set up two more stations for election personnel to help citizens register, and installed a curtain to give voters privacy from those standing in line. Early voting is available at the Hamilton County Election Commission, the Brainerd Recreation Center, the North River Civic Center near Northgate Mall and Eastwood Baptist Church in Collegedale.

Last week, the Hamilton County Election Commission fired the administrator in charge, just one month before the Nov. 3 general election.

The allegations against him, brought to and presented by the Hamilton County Human Resources Department, describe nearly two dozen instances of Administrator Kerry Steelman allegedly berating or otherwise mistreating employees.

Concerns raised by a number of employees describe Steelman calling female lawmakers "b - - - - - s and hags," ripping a face mask off of an employee and making unreasonable asks of employees amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Steelman, who held the position for six years and oversaw 13 elections, says the investigation fell short of due process.

In a lengthy rebuttal to the initial HR report submitted to the Election Commission, Steelman's attorney rebuts many of the allegations, including roughly 15 which Steelman was never asked about before the report was published. The rebuttal includes more than 100 pages of screenshots and other evidence in his defense.

Wednesday's rebuttal was not considered, and Steelman was not allowed a hearing by the commission before a 4-1 vote to terminate his employment.

Below are the specific allegations against Steelman and his responses, based on the report, the rebuttal and related documents provided to the Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County Human Resources Department has declined to comment or share additional information on the investigation process due to pending litigation.

 

Hostile work environment

According to the county's report, Steelman created a hostile work environment through the use of explicit language, aggressive body language and "belittling" employees.

The report details various complaints from employees who say Steelman yelled repeated expletives and banged on tables when angry and managed by intimidating employees.

Steelman denies intimidating his former employees or having any perceived "disdain" for them, but admits that the office was under a "unique stress" due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the elections.

He also cited in his rebuttal his own "myriad" physical health problems, noting their impact on his mood.

He accuses the county of a lack of objectivity and "appalling insensitivity" for failing to include the details of his defense in the report.

 

Disparate treatment of Black and female employees

Steelman reportedly required the election commission's only two Black permanent employees to work as the only two in-person employees during the period of March and May when the office was shut down due to COVID-19.

Steelman says that he was not responsible for assigning in-person duties, which he reported to HR when asked about the allegation, and that other employees regularly worked in person during that time frame as well.

The report also includes accusations of Steelman ignoring or treating female employees differently than their male colleagues.

Steelman denied any bias against female employees in his interview, noting in the rebuttal that he had promoted women and that three of his four permanent hires to the commission had been women, including two women of color.

 

Retaliation

Steelman is accused of moving one employee's seating within the office as retaliation for that employee taking time off after potential COVID-19 exposure. Steelman says the employee's seating was moved due to excessive social media use at work, which needed to be monitored.

The report alleges Steelman asked the same employee to stop living with his fiancee, a nurse, due to potential COVID-19 exposure.

Steelman's rebuttal says he was never asked about this comment or given a chance to explain, but that "the appropriate reaction to COVID-19 was uncertain, even for the CDC."

"It was of paramount importance to Kerry that there not be a spread of COVID-19 within the office that would close the office to the election or endanger the public by voting in person," the rebuttal reads.

Steelman is also accused of retaliation by asking an employee to come into work while on bereavement leave, which he says he was not asked about during his interview and does not know the specific nature of the complaint; claiming another employee's job was in jeopardy after a "high profile" mistake in an election, which Steelman says was one of a series of mistakes that resulted in his confidence in the employee "justifiably waning"; and stripping an employee of responsibilities after she complained about his behavior to the election commission, which Steelman said he was unaware of, meaning his actions were not retaliatory toward this employee.

 

Unwanted physical contact

Steelman is accused in the report of "ripping" an employee's face mask off without permission during a conference call to clarify the employee's muffled speech.

In his interview with HR, Steelman called the accusation "absurd" and claims that the lack of immediate intervention by superiors or sounds of an altercation on the conference call in question deem the allegation "exaggerated or not credible."

Requiring employees to work after hours without compensation

According to the HR report, several employees reported Steelman contacting them during weekends, after business hours and during scheduled time off about work matters.

Employees allege Steelman is "always on" and would "badger" them for responses.

Steelman says he would reach out to employees during off hours for "urgent" matters to report to the election commission, but he is unaware of any employees being denied requested compensation for that time.

 

Politically motivated actions

Employees accuse Steelman of favoring Republicans in the workplace and through the official capacities of the commission.

One employee accuses him of ordering an audit of Republican Tom Decosimo's campaign prior to the Aug. 6 school board election, which Decosimo lost, without a request, which the report alleges is required.

Steelman's rebuttal says he initiated the audit — which was conducted by an independent auditor — of a single polling place after a current county commissioner and a former Chattanooga City Council member voiced concerns about voters being turned away from polls. He also notes that a request is not required for audits in non-partisan races.

Within the office, Steelman is accused of making political remarks including calling one employee a "good Republican" and blaming the "Democratic machine" for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, a subject about which he would allegedly become irate in the office.

Steelman says the "good Republican" comment was made in good nature after the employee attended a Republican fundraising dinner.

He does not deny becoming frustrated with COVID-19 and its impact on the election process, including the reduction of available poll workers, but denies yelling, banging and associated behaviors alleged in the report.

Steelman's rebuttal says he was not asked about any of the political motivation accusations made in the report.

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

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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 10/18/16. Kerry Steelman, Hamilton County Administrator of Elections, speaks about preparations the Election Commission made in preparation for an expected large early voter turnout. Steelman said they doubled the number of voting booths with 47 slots now available, set up two more stations for election personnel to help citizens register, and installed a curtain to give voters privacy from those standing in line. Early voting is available at the Hamilton County Election Commission, the Brainerd Recreation Center, the North River Civic Center near Northgate Mall and Eastwood Baptist Church in Collegedale.
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