Replacing Harris: Officials set method for picking new Unicoi Co. sheriff

Brad Hicks • Mar 10, 2012 at 8:51 AM

ERWIN — The Unicoi County Commission now has in place the procedure it will use to appoint an individual to act as sheriff of Unicoi County until the August general election following last week’s resignation of then Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris.

But before discussion of the appointment process got under way, the Unicoi County Commission unanimously voted to accept the resignation letter previously submitted to the county by Harris at a special called meeting held Friday.

Harris submitted his letter of resignation to the county on March 1, citing ongoing health problems as the reason for his decision. Harris is also currently facing 11 felony charges, including seven counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, theft over $1,000, criminal simulation and attempted aggravated assault. He is scheduled to begin trial on the theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation charges on July 30.

“I’m sure I speak for the commission that we appreciate his service and wish him and his family well,” Commission Chairwoman Sue Jean Wilson said.

With the post of Unicoi County sheriff now declared vacant, the commission discussed the next steps it will take in appointing a sheriff until the general election.

First, under state law the county must publish a public notice in a “newspaper of general circulation” of the meeting at which the commission will make the appointment at least seven days prior to when the meeting will take place.

“So that’s the next step, and that’s a minimum thing we have to do,” County Attorney Doug Shults told commissioners. “As you go through this process, you can do more than the minimum, but you’ve got to do the minimum. So the minimum thing you have to do as a body is publish a public notice and give at least seven days notice, and then have a meeting and consider filling that vacancy.”

While Shults said the county is not required to take applications for the appointment, the commission opted to do so. The county will take resumes, which are to include a statement of why the interested individual is seeking the appointment, up until a deadline set for end of the business day on March 22.

Those seeking the appointment, like candidates who intend to seek the office in the August general election, must meet certain qualifications. Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey said Tennessee Code Annotated 8-8-102 governs the qualifications of county sheriff when addressing vacancies and discussed these qualifications.

These qualifications include that those seeking the office of sheriff in the general election or the commission’s appointment must be at least 25 years of age, a U.S. citizen, a qualified voter in Unicoi County, must have obtained at least or high school diploma or its equivalent, and must have been fingerprinted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Candidates must also have proof of honorable discharge from the U.S. Military if applicable, must have a signed confirmation that a psychological evaluation has been completed, and must have at least three years of full-time experience as a Peace Officer Standards and Training commission-certified law enforcement officer in the past 10 years, or at least three years of full-time experience as a state or federally certified law enforcement officer with training equivalent to that required by the POST commission in the past 10 years.

Bailey said those seeking the office in the election must submit proof and an affidavit affirming they meet all requirements to the POST commission by March 22, 14 days ahead of the April 5 qualifying deadline. After review, the POST commission will then notify the county if the candidate meets the required qualifications of the office.

The commission intends to make the appointment at its regular meeting on March 26. Shults said that any citizen of the county present at the meeting can nominate a qualified candidate for the appointment, but this nomination would require the backing of at least one commissioner before it can be considered.

At the meeting, appointee candidates will be publicly interviewed by commissioners. The commission also approved a measure regarding how it will address multiple candidates, as a majority vote from the commission is required for the appointment.

The panel unanimously approved a motion made by Commissioner Bill Hensley and amended by Commissioner Doug Bowman. Under this motion, a qualified candidate receiving five votes from the nine-member commission will be appointed acting sheriff. In the event of multiple candidates, the commission will vote on the individual candidates, and those receiving the lowest or no votes will be removed from consideration. This process will continue until the field is narrowed to two candidates, and the candidate receiving the majority will be appointed.

The commission, by an 8-1 vote, also approved a motion to approve the return of temporary disability benefits turned over to the county by Harris back to Harris through his labor attorney, Bruce Shine.

Last month, the commission voted to return these funds to the county’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier rather than to Harris directly. The insurance carrier subsequently contacted the county and notified officials that these funds belonged to Harris. Commissioner Doug Bowman cast the lone dissenting vote on the matter.

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