ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris resigned from his post as Unicoi County’s highest-ranking law enforcement official on Thursday after a decade in office.
Harris, through his labor attorney Bruce Shine, submitted his letter of resignation to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch’s office Thursday afternoon. In the letter, Harris cites ongoing health problems as his reason for the decision. Harris is continuing to receive treatment for injuries suffered in an August 2010 fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail.
The letter, which is addressed to Lynch, reads as follows:
“Few individuals have been blessed as I by the citizens of Erwin and Unicoi County. Whether it was during my service on the Board of Mayor and Alderman in Erwin or these past 21 years with Unicoi County, the last ten years as Sheriff of Unicoi County. The citizens of this county have been awfully good to me.
“During the 17 months since my fall, I’ve seen every type of doctor known to man. The medical attention I have received has been exemplary, in Erwin, Johnson City, Atlanta, Asheville and Florida. They physicians tell me they have done all they can and any future progress lies with me. With April’s (April Harris, his wife) help I am working on memory, coordination and getting back to where I was before all this happened. It will take time. My doctors tell me the stress of the Office of Sheriff takes away time that I need to be spending on getting well.
“Greg, the people of Unicoi County deserve and need a full time Sheriff, I’ve tried to do that since August of 2010, but it’s clear I can’t continue as I have. Therefore please accept my resignation as Sheriff of Unicoi County, effective at 12:01 a.m., this day.
“With my resignation the citizens of Unicoi County will have a new and full time Sheriff and I, with April’s help, can spend all the time and mental attention necessary to improve my health situation.
“Lastly, I leave with a sense that I’ve been lucky to enjoy the faith and confidence of the people of Unicoi County. I could not have asked for more.”
Harris was first elected to the position of Unicoi County Sheriff in 2002. In October, a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felonies, including six counts of official misconduct and one count each of tampering with evidence, attempted aggravated assault, criminal simulation and theft over $1,000.
Following these charges, Unicoi County opted to take a “wait and see” approach to the possible initiation of ouster proceedings against Harris, choosing to see what action, if any, the state attorney general’s office planned to take.
At a Feb. 7 hearing in Unicoi County Criminal Court, Harris pleaded not guilty to all charges levied against him from the grand jury’s October session. He is set to begin trial on the theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation charges on July 30.
On Feb. 16, the grand jury returned a true bill charging Harris with an additional count of official misconduct for allegedly having a Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department employee use departmental equipment and supplies in November to prepare a letter soliciting funds to pay his attorneys’ fees during that employee’s working hours. Harris is scheduled to make an initial appearance in Criminal Court on this latest charge on March 27.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr.’s office released a statement saying the office would not pursue ouster proceedings against Harris. The release states the facts of the official misconduct charges from Harris’ October indictment were “too old to be used for ouster.”
The release further states that Cooper’s office has been reviewing February’s new indictment to see if it would support ouster, but that Harris’ decision to retire made this “moot.”
Blake Fontenay, communications directors for the Tennessee Department of the Treasury, said Harris’ retirement through the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System was effective as of Wednesday. Fontenay said Harris is set to receive his first pension check on March 30 and said that if Harris is convicted of a felony related to his job duties, future benefits would cease, per Section (a)(3) of Tennessee Code Annotated 8-35-124.
Lynch said Harris’ resignation was an event that many in the county “dreaded,” but added that the county can now move forward and begin to heal.
“As everyone knows, Unicoi County has been in the news a lot lately, and it seems like for all the wrong reasons,” Lynch said. “I sort of feel like that this should be a relief, not only for the people who feel like the county commission hadn’t moved fast enough or the mayor’s office hadn’t moved fast enough, but it will also be a relief for David Kent Harris and his family as well.
“It’s dreaded because during the Kent Harris administration, a lot of things have happened that were good. Those things seem to have fallen by the wayside with what has come about here lately. I know we got a lot of things done in the county because of him and the people who were attracted to him and helped him. So, in a sense, an era has ended and now, of course, I look forward to us moving on, and I look forward to the county moving on.”
Lynch said Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Ronnie Adkins will now assume the powers of county sheriff until an interim sheriff is appointed. Lynch said County Attorney Doug Shults is currently researching the proper process for filling the position.
Lynch also said that a special-called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission has tentatively been set for March 12 to discuss the matter.
Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey the next steps in the process of filling the position of sheriff will involve the Unicoi County Commission meeting to accept Harris’ resignation and declare the post vacant.
Bailey said the office of Unicoi County sheriff would then be placed on the ballot for the Aug. 2 general election. The qualifying deadline for candidates seeking the office of sheriff is noon on April 5. These candidates must run as Independents, although Bailey said she understands that political parties have the option of having party conventions to choose a nominee.
The candidate selected as the next Unicoi County sheriff following the August general election would take office on Sept. 1. This person would fill out the remainder of Harris’ term, which expires in 2014, Bailey said.