By Sally Voth -- email@example.com
The RSW Regional Jail Authority's threat of possible legal action against vocal jail protesters is a "garden-variety slapsuit" -- strategic lawsuit against public participation -- the head of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union said Monday.
"There are lots of times when public officials don't like when public citizens speak up, and they try to sanction them," Virginia ACLU Executive Director Claire Gastañaga said in a phone interview.
On Thursday, the jail authority -- made up of government officials from Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Warren counties -- voted to have its attorney explore whether legal action can be taken against a group of Shenandoah County residents who succeeded in delaying the sale of $45.36 million in jail bonds by the Virginia Resource Authority.
When the bonds were sold June 7, the interest rate was 4 percent, up about .1 percent from the May 23 VRA pool sale. Ted Cole, of Davenport and Co. LLC, told authority members that increase will result in an additional $47,595 in annual debt service for the next 30 years.
The authority then voted 5-3 to have its counsel, at the suggestion of member Daniel J. Murray Jr., who is the Warren County North River District supervisor, "see if there's any legal action that can be taken [against] those responsible and hold them accountable for the waste of our money."
Anti-jail proponents bombarded VRA board members and staff with emails prior to the May bond sale, according to a memo from VRA program management director Peter D'Alema to RSW Regional Jail Authority Doug Stanley, who is the Warren County administrator. The memo says threats of legal action were made.
Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter -- a longtime critic of the jail project -- Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy and Rappahannock County Supervisor Roger Welch cast nay votes to Murray's motion.
Voting for it were Murray, Stanley, Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron, Shenandoah County Supervisors Chairman Conrad Helsley and Shenandoah County Administrator Doug Walker.
"I didn't think it was appropriate to support a resolution that in my opinion could lead to legal action against citizens of this county, who were exercising their dissent regarding a public issue or government business," Carter, who has proposed what he claims are cheaper alternatives, said in a Friday phone interview.
Gastañaga would seem to agree.
"The whole idea of this simply sounds ludicrous," she said.
She said slapsuits were lawsuits designed to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with litigation.
"Those are just fundamentally offensive to the First Amendment," said Gastañaga. "I think it's just one of those situations where we need to wait to see what's happened, and we will keep a close eye on it. One hopes that counsel for the authority and clear heads will prevail."
The resolution wasn't part of the authority's objective, Welch said Monday.
"I don't think those people intended to, I guess, cost us more money by having the date changes and everything resulting in the change in interest rate," he said.
Those protesting the jail are "just a small minority," Welch added.
McCarthy said he doubted there was much to gain by seeking legal recourse.
"We're a public body," he said Monday. "There's going to be public [dissent] that may act to the detriment [of] the mission, but that doesn't mean that there's much we can do about it. Looking into the possibility doesn't say that we would actually do anything about it anyway.
"I certainly understand the reason Mr. Murray made the motion he did. It's a hard pill to swallow."
In his prepared statement at last week's jail authority meeting, Murray said protestors had insinuated some public officials were on their side, and by not publicly denying such claims, those officials were "just as culpable as the others."
"My response is I don't control the behavior of the citizens," Carter said Friday. "I've been publicly opposed to this project since December of 2006 ... but, I can't control them using my name. The comments that I make are the comments that I make.
"I think people expect me to point out that there's another way to do this, there may be another way."
Shenandoah County supervisors had little to say on the issue.
"I'm not sure how I feel yet," District 1 Supervisor Dick Neese said Friday. "I guess probably it's not a bad idea to see if there's any [legal recourse]. I would be surprised if there was."
As for whether the action could impinge free speech, Neese said, "That's a touchy subject, one way or the other. It's kind of a gray area, I think."
When he was reached on Friday, District 5 Supervisor Dennis Morris said he didn't really know about the authority's action. He didn't have much further to say Monday.
"Right now, it's an authority issue," Morris said. "I haven't talked to anybody. It's not really a board issue at this time. It's not an issue that I need to get involved in right now. Our board hasn't discussed it."
District 2 Supervisor Steve Baker, District 3 Supervisor David Ferguson and District 4 Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli didn't return messages left Friday and Monday.