Majority of supervisors bar contested topic at future meetings

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — Shenandoah County leaders made a rare move Thursday to keep supervisors from bringing up a topic at future meetings.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 at a work session to prohibit members from reviving a motion to advertise the county attorney position. Prior to the vote, Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz, for the third time in a few months, asked the board to consider looking elsewhere for legal services. The county receives legal services from J. Jay Litten and the Harrisonburg firm of Litten & Sipe.

Chairman David Ferguson, Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley and Supervisors Steve Baker and John R. “Dick” Neese voted against Bailey’s and Shruntz’ motion after a heated debate in which some members defended the county attorney’s performance.

Moments after the vote, Helsley made a motion to prevent reintroduction of the topic for six months as allowed in the board’s rules and procedures adopted Jan. 2. Specifically, the board can vote to impose the prohibition following the defeat of the main motion that pertains the topic in question.

Helsley said Friday he made the motion to use the rule because Bailey and Shruntz continued to raise the question.

“But they just seem like they want to bring it up on a monthly basis and keep regurgitating this,” Helsley said. “I just felt — and, yes it’s in the rules that we can do that — and I just thought that rather than deal with it in November and then again in December this at least keeps it away for six months, and I’m not trying to do anything I don’t think the board wouldn’t want to do but now this is third time we’ve gone through the very same issue.”

Bailey considers the board’s action a personal attack, she said Friday. The supervisor said she understands the rule applies to the public at meetings, but not board members.

“They cannot stifle, you know, speech like that,” Bailey said. “They can try. They can make motions like they did and they do have the majority of the board.”

Asked whether the rule hinders free speech, Helsley said he doesn’t object to any board member bringing up topics.

“I’m not trying to restrict free speech at all,” Helsley said. “But if you’re gonna just beat the same horse at every meeting at what point is it, OK, enough is enough?”

Helsley pointed out that at any time the board can suspend its rules. To do so requires a majority vote.

Whether or not the board included the prohibitive rule in its list in anticipation that Bailey or Shruntz would bring up topics more than once is not clear. The board included the prohibition on topics for discussion in the revised version of its rules adopted Jan. 2 at Bailey’s and Shruntz’ first meeting as supervisors. The list was far more extensive and detailed than the previous version revised and adopted in 2011. At the organizational meeting, Bailey and Shruntz failed to persuade other members to delay the adoption, saying they needed time to study the 18-page document and give input.

Bailey said Friday that she spoke to an attorney for the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council at the beginning of the year about the rules. Bailey recalled that an attorney with the agency said the board cannot hold members to the kind of rules imposed Thursday.

“But I knew they were going to push these kind of things because that was the purpose of bringing these rules up,” Bailey said.

As Helsley recalled Friday, the board recognized that its list of nine rules in 2011 were “very flimsy” and needed work. During the process of hiring County Administrator Mary T. Price in 2013, the board discussed the need to revise the rules so the chairman of the board would “know how to handle situations” such as canceling meetings, Helsley said.

Shenandoah County supervisors have disagreed with Shruntz and Bailey. The majority of the board has on several occasions since Jan. 2 voted down requests by Bailey to put matters she wants discussed on regular meeting agendas. Most recently she was able to put the topic of the county attorney on the work session. Typically the board doesn’t act at its work sessions, though Litten has said they can do so.

Bailey said she and Shruntz didn’t want to pass the rules in part because of the prohibition.

“It just shows you what length that this previous board will go to to get out of talking about [the issue],” Bailey said.

Regarding the county attorney position, Bailey and Shruntz asked that the board to consider advertising for legal services provided currently by Harrisonburg-based Litten & Sipe — at least the third time they brought up the topic since taking office. Bailey and Shruntz questioned why the county did not have a written contract with Litten. They also asked to see the list of the charges for legal services.

During the meeting, Chairman David Ferguson took a defensive stance when Shruntz asked if the board picked Litten because the attorney’s late father, Donald D. Litten, served as legal counsel for the county. Other members defended Litten’s and firm’s service to the county. Helsley reiterated Friday that the county spends less on legal services than other jurisdictions.

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