Elections Chief Finalists Have Political Histories

By Bill Dries

The two finalists for the job of Shelby County Elections Administrator each told the Election Commission last week that if they get the job they will have some rebuilding work to do in how local elections are conducted.

The Shelby County Election Commission has two finalists for Shelby County Elections Administrator after its first pick for the job turned it down. Both have experience in politics.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“There needs to be trust rebuilt,” said Chris Thomas, a former Shelby County commissioner and Lakeland city manager, who touted his experience in administration as Probate Court Clerk.

“I’ll have some challenges,” said Linda Phillips, a former elections administrator in Tippecanoe County, Ind. “I think I can help you meeting them.”

Thomas and Phillips are the new finalists in what amounts to a second round of the process to fill the vacancy created when elections administrator Richard Holden resigned effective at the end of 2015.

Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers said after the Friday, March 11, sessions that the five-member commission must decide on a next step, which could be to choose either Thomas or Phillips – continue talking with both “or whether we should open back up the process and consider others.”

“We would love to have one definitely in place in time for the August election,” Meyers added. “I think the reality is whoever we get in place is going to be in a learning curve during this time.”

Thomas and Phillips would both have to get certification from the state of Tennessee required for the elections administrator position.

Phillips said she would want to visit Memphis and meet with political leaders and election staff prior to accepting the position, but is prepared to move here and hold the job “until I drop dead or retire.”

The issue is an important one given what happened in January.

The election commission extended a job offer to Tammy Smith, an assistant elections administrator in Wilson County, Tenn., in January after interviews with her and two other finalists, including Phillips.

Smith turned down the job citing a child who wants to remain in school in Wilson County.

The commission turned to the two other finalists and one of them, Scott Daisher, an elections ballot programmer in Warren, Ohio, bowed out without explanation.

“We want somebody that has strong leadership skills and yet at the same time can engender some trust and confidence, both among the staff, among the political parties and the other stakeholders in the election process,” Meyers said.

Phillips was Tippecanoe County Clerk for two terms from 2003 through 2010. Her duties included overseeing and certifying election results. The clerk has the responsibility of an elections administrator along with the duties of overseeing marriage licenses and the schedules and records of various courts of record in the county including collecting court costs and judgments.

Phillips ran for and was elected county Assessor in 2010.

She lost a 2014 bid for re-election in a hard fought race that included lots of attention to $500,000 in back taxes owed by Phillips.

The race also featured attack ads against Phillips financed by a political action committee that backed challenger Eric Grossman, a former employee of the Assessor’s office.

Phillips told election commissioners on last week’s conference call that she simply didn’t get the most votes and also said some property owners unhappy with their assessments were a factor.

The defeat has at least temporarily ended a political career in the county seat of Lafayette, Ind., that included being elected to the Lafayette City Council and Fairfield Township Board before her service as clerk.

Like Phillips, Thomas has an extensive political background that began with his election to the Memphis City Schools board in the 1980s.

Thomas encountered some political turbulence when he left the Shelby County Commission in 2014 to become city manager for Lakeland as fellow commissioner Wyatt Bunker became mayor of the suburban city.

Thomas lasted a year before he was ousted by the Lakeland commissioners.

“The truth about what happened in Lakeland is I had three commissioners who came to me individually to do things in their neighborhoods,” Thomas told election commissioners. “I did my job and I got wrapped up in them being upset with the mayor.”

Thomas also said his mistake was not getting the items he undertook for individual commissioners cleared by the commission as a body. He had questions for election commissioners about whether he follows the chairman of the commission or the commission as a whole in responding to problems that aren’t cover by policies.

Phillips said she had Googled the election commission and found plenty of coverage of election problems in recent years.

“There were some conflicts,” she observed.

“That’s putting it mildly,” election commissioner Norma Lester said.

Phillips also reviewed the commission’s website and when she was questioned more closely about what she thought of it, Phillips hesitated.

“I want to get a better lay of the political landscape before I make those comments,” she said.

Later Phillips talked of paper audit trails for voters in several forms and Tippecanoe County’s use of 20 “voting centers” on election day in place of election day polling places by precincts.

She also talked about a website upgrade as well as looking into an equipment upgrade.

Thomas said he would talk with other county election coordinators across the state as part of getting familiar with the job.

He also pledged to consult more with elected officials of both parties and lobby county commissioners more effectively for funding the commission has recently denied the office.

His emphasis on that prompted election commissioner Dee Nollner to ask if “you see this job as mostly public relations?”

“No,” Thomas replied. “But that’s a big part of it.”

Phillips, without hearing Thomas’s interview, touted her experience running elections.

Tippecanoe County has approximately 130,000 voters compared to more than half a million in Shelby County.

“You have a plan at 4 a.m. and usually by 4:05 it’s shot,” she said of her election experience. “Generally, my day was pretty calm until the polls closed.”