The Unicoi County Commission is expected to meet behind closed doors Monday to discuss matters pertaining to the felony indictment of Sheriff Kent Harris.
Closing the meeting to the public would be a mistake and an affront to both the state’s Sunshine Law and to the precepts of open government. More importantly, meeting behind closed doors would only further fuel the rumors that have swirled throughout the region ever since the news broke that Harris had been indicted.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said last week he and commissioners plan to meet behind closed doors with the county attorney to discuss options for addressing the sheriff’s situation, including his possible removal from office. Simply discussing options for dealing with Harris does not fall under the attorney/client exception of the Sunshine Law. The law is very specific on this matter. Discussions between a government board and its attorney concerning pending litigation are exempted from the Open Meetings Act, but only if that public body is a named party in the lawsuit.
We, however, fail to see how a possible ouster proceeding against the sheriff remotely fits into that exception. While the courts have loosened the definition of “pending litigation” to include “pending controversy likely to result in litigation,” it’s a stretch for Unicoi County officials to think they have a right to meet behind closed doors simply to commiserate about the sheriff.
Commissioners must let the sun shine in on all of their discussions Monday. Failure to do so will cast suspicion on the entire process and leave citizens wondering what they are trying to cover up now.