County mum on the fate of Alms House

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County officials remain tight-lipped over the fate of the former Alms House as questions of its ownership arise.

District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey said Tuesday that no deed appears to exist that would specifically show Shenandoah County owns the property. The supervisor went further to question whether or not the county could collect money from its insurance provider on the Alms House if the county could not prove ownership. The property and contents are insured through VaCorp for more than $1.1 million, according to information provided by Bailey.

The issue of ownership came up at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday morning. The board went into closed session to discuss the former Alms House site with County Attorney J. Jay Litten. Chris Way, the county’s geographic information system specialist, and Duane Williams, facilities manager, also attended the closed session.

The board approved a “request to enter into Closed Session to consult with legal counsel regarding specific legal matters requiring the provision of legal advice by our attorney … The specific subject matter is the site of the former historic Alms House.”

The board’s motion to go into closed session cited the specific section of state code on closed meetings that includes as reasons “consultation with legal counsel and briefings by staff members or consultants pertaining to actual or probably litigation.” However, the motion does not indicate that the subject matter would include probable or actual litigation.

The code section further states “nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to permit the closure of a meeting merely because an attorney representing the public body is in attendance or is consulted on a matter.”

Bailey opposed the motion to discuss the matter in closed session and asked why they couldn’t talk about it in the open. Litten said he couldn’t answer the question in open session. He did acknowledge that no potential litigation exists.

When the board returned to open session about 30 minutes later to certify that they discussed only the matter indicated in the motion to go into closed session, Bailey and District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz voted against the certification. Litten said they needed to provide a reason for why they felt the discussion deviated from closed meeting topic.

“Because it was potential litigation,” Bailey interjected. “You looked at it as potential litigation and that is not applicable. We deviated on site and went toward the historical part of it.”

The attorney noted that the statute does allow for discussions about potential litigation but they did not hold the closed session for that reason. Litten said they went into closed session under the section that allows an exemption when a board seeks legal advice.

“It has to do with ownership of that property,” Bailey said. “Does the county own it and that’s potential litigation.”

Board Chairman David Ferguson confirmed the discussion touched on ownership of the Alms House.

“There was discussion on the Alms House property as to being able to secure a proper deed, which our research showed we could not find a deed,” Ferguson said. “We will move forward to see what options the county has to secure a legal deed of ownership to that property and we will wait ’til we hear from [Litten] as to what our options are.”

Litten said he’d never seen a board member challenge the certification in more than 1,200 meetings he’s attended. The attorney said two issues had arisen – one related to whether the board should discuss the subject matter in public and whether officials met “lawfully” in closed session.

Litten added “to come out here in open session and suggest that we acted unlawfully in a closed room is irresponsible.” Ferguson said he agreed.

Alan Gernhardt, staff attorney for the Virginia Freedom of Information Action Advisory Council, said Tuesday afternoon that the exemption for discussion of legal matters likely applies to the issue of ownership of the Alms House.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com