Sumner County Commission poised to scrap county human resources department
Sumner County is poised to dissolve its human resources department and fire its director, one of the latest controversial steps taken by a slate of “constitutional Republicans” elected to local office last year on a platform of ending business-as-usual and limiting public spending.
The budget committee of the Sumner County Commission voted last week to scrap the department, a move that would leave one of the county’s largest employers — itself — without a dedicated HR 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.
I’m old enough to remember when there weren’t HR departments in private businesses. I don't even understand today what they do.
Cheryl Lewis-Smith, the county’s HR 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?” she said. She questioned whether it had to do with her age (she is 58); her race (Lewis-Smith is Black); or her efforts to do her job even in the face of adversity.
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.
Lewis-Smith did not respond to a Lookout request this week 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 HR experience, was unable to accomplish basic tasks, including creating job descriptions and developing personnel policies in the two years since the HR 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,” Matthew Shoaf, the commission’s chair. Shoaf 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 HR 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,” said Klein. “I don’t even understand today what they do.”
Under the proposal, HR duties going forward will be shared by the county’s finance and law departments.
Tennessee counties are not required to have a dedicated HR 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 9th largest county and has approximately 1,000 employees.
The committee’s vote to dissolve the HR department is the latest unconventional step taken by Constitutional Republican-allied commission members.
All 24 of Sumner County Commissioners are Republican, 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 called “Rinos” by Constitutional Republican supporters.
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.