ERWIN — The Unicoi County Commission is expected to discuss, in both closed and open meetings, the recent indictment of Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris and how the county may want to proceed in addressing the matter at Monday’s regular commission meeting.
On Oct. 14, a Unicoi County grand jury indicted Harris on 10 felony charges, which included six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, criminal simulation, theft over $1,000 and attempted aggravated assault.
That day, District Attorney General Tony Clark said Harris’ charges stem from two Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigations. According to the TBI, the agency began the investigation into allegations of misconduct against Harris in September 2010 after being requested by Clark’s office.
A criminal summons in lieu of arrest was issued to Harris that afternoon. Harris reported to the Unicoi County Jail for booking and processing Thursday afternoon.
At first, the plan was for the commission to discuss the situation involving Harris with County Attorney Doug Shults in a closed client/attorney meeting following the commission’s regular meeting, which begins at 6 p.m.
That plan has since changed, according to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch. The commissioners and Shults will still meet privately, but this will take place just prior to the commission meeting. The client/attorney meeting will take place at around 5:45 p.m., Lynch said.
Lynch said this meeting would strictly involve Shults briefing the commissioners on its options that may lie ahead with regard to the sheriff. One of these options is the initiation of ouster proceedings, Lynch said, which are considered a civil matter. He also said no decisions on the matter will be made during this client/attorney meeting.
The privacy of the meeting is provided for under an exception to the state’s Open Meetings Act, also known as the Sunshine Law, due to discussion of pending litigation or the treat of litigation, Lynch said.
While the Sunshine Law has evolved since its adoption in 1974, Rick Hollow, an attorney for the Tennessee Press Association, said the law currently provides for a governing body to meet with its attorney if there is present, pending, threatened or contemplated litigation.
However, Hollow said there are limits as to what the governing body and its attorney can discuss in these closed meetings. He said clients may present their attorney with facts and information regarding a legal issue. The attorney is then allowed to discuss the legal ramifications of the facts presented to them.
If discussion of any type of action on the matter is initiated, Hollow said the meeting and discussion must then be opened to the public.
“If they go one step further, they would be in violation of the Sunshine Law,” Hollow said.
An attorney going beyond these limits would be subject to punishment by the Tennessee Supreme Court up to and including disbarment, Hollow said.
Frank Gibson, with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, agreed with Hollow’s assessment, adding that the closed client/attorney meeting must be “strictly run” and cannot include discussion or deliberation of how the county should proceed on the matter.
“The purpose of the privilege is to arm the attorney with information that attorney would use or for an attorney to advise them what the implications are of a certain action,” Gibson said.
Lynch said a portion of the commission’s regular meeting, which is open to the public, will be set aside for the purposes of discussing Harris’ recent indictment as part of an addendum to the meeting agenda.
“Basically that’s going to be on the agenda, and if a commissioner makes a motion to move forward with the removal of the sheriff then the commission would vote on that,” Lynch said.
But Lynch said he does not expect the county to move toward ouster proceedings Monday. The state can initiate the ouster but should it opt not to, it would then fall to the county to decide if it wants to seek the ouster. Lynch said Shults and Clark have been in discussion and said the county hopes to have more information regarding their discussions on Monday, though he is unsure it will.
Should the state not pursue the ouster, Lynch said the cost of items associated with it, such as the investigation and depositions, would then fall to the county if it chooses to pursue the ouster. He also said if the county pursues the ouster and Harris is not convicted, then the county could end up owing money associated with the sheriff’s case, such as attorney fees.
“It can become a costly, long, drawn out procedure,” Lynch said.