ERWIN, Tenn. (AP) — A judge has dropped six official misconduct charges against former Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris.
The Johnson City Press reports that Judge John Kerry Blackwood ruled there was insufficient evidence to proceed with Harris’ trial, which started Monday.
It would have been Harris’ third trial. Two previous trials ended in hung juries.
During opening statements Monday, District Attorney General Tony Clark told jurors that county inmates were taken to property owned by Harris to bush hog it, mow it, cut wood and raze structures there.
Harris’ attorney said in court that Harris did not know the inmates were working on the property.
A grand jury in October 2011 indicted Harris on felony charges, including official misconduct, theft, criminal simulation, attempted aggravated assault and tampering with evidence.
ERWIN, Tenn. (AP) — The Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office has a better way of getting around in rugged terrain because of a military surplus donation.
Sheriff Mike Hensley told The Johnson City Press (http://bit.ly/TGB4ew ) the department now has two humvees that can be used to get to remote locations.
The department already had some four-wheel-drive SUVs, but they don’t have the off-road capabilities of the military vehicles.
“We use them on patrol, and we don’t want them to be torn up if we can keep from it, Hensley said of the standard sport utility vehicles. “They’re not designed to go into disaster areas like (the humvees) are.”
Hensley said his department recently picked up the vehicles in South Carolina at no cost to the county. Nearby Washington and Carter counties previously used the military surplus program to obtain vehicles. In fact, it was Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal who suggested Hensley look into the surplus program. Six weeks from when he applied, the vehicles were ready.
“It’s a good asset for the county,” Hensley said of the military’s surplus program. “That means we don’t have to buy it and we can use it. It is a good program.”
The four-wheel-drive Humvees have high ground clearance and will be used for off-road travel and also on snow-covered roads.
Hensley said maintenance records will be kept and the humvees must be kept by the department for a specified time, but then could be sold if no longer needed and the funds would go to the county. The sheriff said his department is checking what other surplus equipment is available.
“Since the war is winding down in Afghanistan, there’s more equipment coming in, and anything we can use here we’re going to try to get,” Hensley said.
A 2,000-acre tract of land in the Rocky Ford area of Unicoi County will become Tennessee’s 55th state park, officials said Tuesday in a ceremony announcing the land has been conveyed to the state.
From the Johnson City Press report on the event: Gov. Bill Haslam said he grew up not too far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the country’s most visited national park and is regarded for its scenic beauty. However, he said the sights and scenery offered in Rocky Fork, a portion of which is set to become Tennessee’s newest state park, rival those offered in the national park.
“You see the waterfalls and incredible protected woodland area, it’s a great thing to have,” Haslam said. “In Tennessee, what we want to do is we want to protect those things that make Tennessee special and we want to provide opportunities for all citizens to be out and enjoy them. This is going to allow us to do both of them.”
The governor and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, as well as state and local officials, were on hand at the Zane Whitson Welcome Center on Tuesday, where it was announced that around 2,000 acres of the approximately 10,000-acre tract that makes up Rocky Fork will become the state’s 55th state park.
– Note: The TDEC news release is below.
ERWIN, Tenn. (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service has completed its purchase of a large undeveloped tract of land in the Appalachians.
The tract, known as Rocky Fork, is nearly 10,000 acres and lies in Unicoi and Greene counties in East Tennessee. The Johnson City Press (http://bit.ly/WvsG15) reported $5 million in funding from the USDA helped it finalized the purchase of 1,200 acres — the last section that was privately owned.
Preserving as much of Rocky Fork as possible became a priority of the U.S. Forest Service when it acquired the first parcel of it in 2008 as the land went up for sale.
In all, the Forest Service has spent $40 million to keep 7,667 acres open for public use. The Conservation Fund owns about 2,000 acres of the tract.
“This final Forest Service acquisition is huge, not only in the number of acres, but in potential economic impacts,” District Ranger Terry Bowerman said in a statement about the purchase. “It will also help conserve and protect many outstanding natural and scenic resources. This is truly a dream come true for many people.”
News release from Tennessee Bureau of Investigation:
Knoxville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation presented additional evidence to the Unicoi County Grand Jury today which resulted in additional charge against Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris. His attorney was served with another criminal summons this afternoon.
The Unicoi County grand jury indicted Harris on an additional count of official misconduct for using his county computer in November of 2011 to produce letters intended to solicit funds to pay his attorney fees. In October of 2011, the grand jury indicted Harris on six counts of official misconduct, one count of theft over $1,000, one count of tampering with evidence, one count of criminal simulation and one count of attempted aggravated assault. TBI began the investigation into allegations of misconduct made against Harris in September of 2010 after being requested by the 1st Judicial District Attorney General’s Office.
Harris is scheduled to appear in court on March 27, 2012 at 9:00 am for an initial appearance on the new charge. A July 2012 trial date set been set for the theft and criminal simulation charges.
Nearly three months after a Unicoi County grand jury indicted Sheriff Kent Harris on 10 felony charges, the county is maintaining a “wait-and-see” approach on what to do about the sheriff, reports the Johnson City Press. County officials are still waiting on action from the state attorney general’s office before making any moves of their own regarding Harris’ position, according to County Mayor Greg Lynch.
“It’s not anything that’s dead in the water,” Lynch said. “It’s on hold right now.”
In late October, the County Commission heard from County Attorney Doug Shults who, at that time, told the commission that he had received information from District Attorney General Tony Clark that the state attorney general’s office was looking into civil actions relative to Harris’ removal from office.
On Oct. 14, a 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, theft over $1,000, criminal simulation and attempted aggravated assault.
Ouster proceedings can be initiated by the state attorney general’s office, the district attorney general’s office or the county. Should the County Commission seek the ouster, the costs associated with the proceedings would fall to the county.
ERWIN, Tenn. (AP) — The Unicoi County Commission has voted against supporting a proposal that would allow county business to be conducted in private.
The 7-1 vote on Monday comes a month after a unanimous vote to draw up a resolution supporting changes to the state’s Sunshine Law, according to the Johnson City Press (http://bit.ly/tRyKW4).
The law forbids two or more officials on a local legislative body, such as a county commission, from meeting privately to deliberate on public business.
The Tennessee County Commissioners Association is promoting a change to allow closed-door talks as long as a quorum is not present.
Unicoi Commissioner Doug Bowman brought the proposal last month. He said the county would be better served by discussing matters such as property purchases and prospective industries out of public view.
— From Sullivan County:
BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Sullivan County commissioners decided Monday against a resolution that asked the General Assembly to loosen open meeting laws for county and city governments.
The commissioners approved the first reading of the ordinance last month. But according to the Bristol Herald Courier, several commissioners said Monday that people in the community opposed the idea (http://bit.ly/tefSXs). They said people were worried that the commissioners would meet behind closed doors.
The Tennessee County Commissioners Association has been pushing the effort. Commissioners in Williamson and Obion counties have approved similar resolutions. Rhea, Roane and Anderson commissioners voted against one.
The 37-year-old law, also known as “the sunshine law,” currently forbids two or more officials on a local legislative body, such as a county commission or city council, from meeting privately to deliberate on government matters.
The county commissioners group hopes to amend the law and allow members of government bodies to discuss public affairs in private, as long as the discussion involves less than a quorum. The law applies only to local governments. The General Assembly has enacted a statute allowing legislators to hold private discussions when there is less than a quorum of the body present.
Gov. Bill Haslam, former mayor of Knoxville, has said he opposes the change
News release from TBI:
Knoxville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation served a criminal summons this afternoon by order of a judge on the current Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris on multiple felony charges after he was indicted by the Unicoi County Grand Jury on Friday, October 14, 2011.
Harris was indicted on six counts official misconduct, one count of theft over $1,000, one count of tampering with evidence, one count of criminal simulation and one count of attempted aggravated assault. TBI began the investigation into allegations of misconduct made against Harris in September of 2010 after being requested by the 1st Judicial District Attorney General’s Office. The six counts of official misconduct stem from incidences on June 23 through 24, June 30, July 12 through July 13, July 15, July 17 and July 19 of 2010 when Harris had inmates at the Unicoi County Jail perform labor on property on North Mohawk Drive in Erwin, Tenn. that Harris owns.
Additionally on September 6, 2008, Harris altered or destroyed a record related to evidence or the evidence itself that was part of investigation which is considered tampering with evidence. He also made or altered a memo requesting payment from Unicoi County for a vehicle that was donated to the county resulting in the criminal simulation charge. The theft incident occurred on September 23, 2008, when Harris received $4,500 that was property of the county. Most recently, on July 21, 2011, Harris attempted to assault another man with a deadly weapon.
Harris has to appear in court within ten days to be processed.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam visited Unicoi County Middle School last week, reports the Erwin Record, and conducted a roundtable meeting with Director of Schools Denise Brown, state Rep. David Hawk and a host of teachers from all grade levels, with experience ranging from one to more than 40 years. “I honestly think the most important work that I will do as governor is to help continue the progress we’ve made in education,” Haslam told educators at last week’s meeting. “This is not meant to be just a dog-and-pony show.”
…Haslam continued the discussion by asking how participants at the table felt the state was doing at retaining good teachers.
“Not too well,” UCHS German teacher Lynn Honeycutt said. “We’re seeing a huge exodus of teachers (that are) leaving our county to go to systems within 15 minutes of here.”
Honeycutt said equalization of pay among school systems across the state could help remedy the problem, and Haslam agreed that something needs to be done.
“Fundamentally, we’re going to have to figure out a way to address compensation,” Haslam said. “Obviously the right balance is out there somewhere.”
UCHS drama instructor Lori Ann Wright added that colleges are finding it more difficult to place student teachers with mentors, as a new statewide teacher evaluation system places stringent requirements and added pressure on teachers to keep their students’ test scores high.
“That’s a huge part of your evaluation,” Wright said. “A lot of teachers are just not as willing to take on student teachers now because of that.”
Middle school instructor Lenee Hendrix also cited the loss of incentives such as collective bargaining by teacher unions, as well as new rules making it more difficult for teachers to reach tenured status, as culprits for the loss of 30 percent of new teachers from the field after their first three years on the job.
“The loss of these incentives and consistently low salaries are complicating the problem,” Hendrix said, adding that these factors, coupled with the stringent new evaluation system, are creating a “revolving door effect” with new teachers.
Seventh-grade math teacher Lisa Peterson said changes to the education system are being reported in the media and, subsequently, are making the teaching profession look like “the pit of society.”
“This job used to be one of admiration,” Peterson said.