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'Cat's out of the bag' on county interest in land

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- Shenandoah County likely passed up a chance to buy land for the Sheriff's Office, a supervisor said Tuesday night.

The Board of Supervisors met in closed session at the end of its regular meeting to discuss possible acquisition of property, specifically land adjacent to the county government center at 600 N. Main St.

Chairman David Ferguson said in open session that the board talked about foreclosed property that is coming up for auction. County property records show a 2.7-acre parcel that lies adjacent to the government center parking lot and the school system's bus garage.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act exempts such topics of discussion from open-meeting requirements in cases where the talk in open session could affect the board's bargaining position.

Talking about the land in question in open session may impact bargaining and cause the price to increase, Ferguson said when supervisors returned from their short, closed meeting.

"Now it's out there," Ferguson said. "I don't think we'll be bidding on it, even if the sheriff came to us and told us 'yeah, this would be a good thing,' 'cause the cat's out of the bag and negotiating position is bad and I doubt that we'd move any further with it."

Ferguson chose to give details about the discussion.

"It's a big enough facility, I thought, that we should consider," Ferguson said. "We should have discussion because of the sheriff's need for a facility."

The Sheriff's Office earmarked money to help pay for engineering and design work for a new headquarters, Ferguson added. The chairman suggested the property as a possible option.

He said that he felt it was prudent, from a business perspective, "to safeguard the citizens' money from what any other legitimate business would have done -- to protect its customers; not to hide anything from them but to protect them.

"The discussion was that, unless we have a consensus of the board that they wanted to do this, I wasn't going to fall on my sword to purchase any property, and it was stated in the meeting that even if the sheriff wanted the property, we weren't going to purchase any property, not even for the sheriff."

Supervisor Cindy Bailey said she wanted to correct Ferguson's statement.

"I said if the sheriff can come to us for what he needs," Bailey said.

Sheriff Timothy C. Carter, who had been at the meeting earlier, did not attend the closed session.

Supervisor Marsha Shruntz and Bailey voted against going into closed session.

"Please explain to me why we need to go into closed session to talk about property the county does not need and cannot afford," Bailey said. "We don't have a specific purpose for this."

Bailey questioned why the board would need to talk about the land in closed session if they weren't entering into negotiations. Ferguson warned to do so would put the board in an unfair position should it decide to negotiate for the property.

When supervisors returned, members voted 5-1 to certify that the board only talked about the matters that the majority said they would discuss when they voted to go into closed session. Shruntz voted against the certification. County Attorney J. Jay Litten said Shruntz would need to state a reason for her vote. Shruntz said she didn't feel the board needed to go into closed session to talk about the topic.

Shruntz' vote meant that either she did not understand the motion or she felt the board took an illegal action when it went into closed session, Ferguson said. Litten concurred with Ferguson's analysis of the law.

A similar situation came up at a previous meeting when Shruntz and Bailey voted not to certify the closed session.

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

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