Board seeks new county attorney

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County will advertise for new legal services over objections by the current attorney’s most vocal critics.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 this week to issue a request for proposals seeking legal services. County Attorney J. Jay Litten plans to step down at the end of the year to take the town superintendent post for Bridgewater.

Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz tried to persuade members to wait until after Jan. 1 to advertise for proposals so that “the new board” could be involved in the process. The board voted 4-2 against Bailey’s motion. Bailey and Shruntz, in turn, voted against the motion to advertise the request.

Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese urged the board to approve the request for proposal.

“I think we really need to go ahead and proceed with it,” Neese said. “I mean it’s kind of difficult for someone to step in the middle of the process, not having been involved in it at all and, if we started Jan. 1, it’ll probably be March, April before we actually get someone on board.

“We can’t operate without an attorney,” Neese added.

Bailey noted that Litten & Sipe has agreed to provide legal services to the county even after Litten leaves the position, preventing any interruption in service. Assistant County Administrator Evan Vass concurred with Bailey.

“Litten & Sipe is the county attorney until you make a decision or if Litten & Sipe were to leave your services,” Vass said.

Supervisor Steve Baker and other members have voiced support for the attorney and the services provided by the law firm to the county over the years.

“As far as I’m concerned, I think the firm of Litten & Sipe have done an excellent job for the county throughout their tenure here,” Baker said. “They have given excellent advice when it was needed and all the litigation that we have faced they’ve always come out on top for us.”

Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley said whatever agreement the board reaches with a law firm would likely include a clause that allows the county to back out of the arrangement. Litten concurred.

Shruntz said “we have a sitting, lame-duck board.” Chairman David Ferguson asked Shruntz to define “sitting, lame-duck.”

Shruntz replied that the three members up for re-election are lame ducks. Usually “lame duck” refers to an elected official who is not re-elected but who is still in office until his or her term expires. The three supervisors Shruntz mentioned are seeking re-election and, if elected Nov. 3, would not be lame ducks. Ferguson questioned Shruntz’ use of the term. The board then voted to advertise the request for proposal.

Ferguson later asked Litten to comment on a debate that erupted at their previous meeting over the board’s decision to go into closed session to discuss the status of the New Market Fire and Rescue Inc.’s emergency medical services license and, specifically, the county’s legal obligations related to providing those services. At the meeting, Bailey and Shruntz fought to keep the discussion in open session. The board is never required to go into closed session for any reason. When the board came out of closed session, Bailey voted against the motion to certify that supervisors only discussed the matters for which they went into closed session, insinuating that members had violated the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

“I do have a problem if the impression is given that we were in violation anybody’s code, law or regulation that says we shouldn’t have in the closed session to start with,” Ferguson said.

Bailey argued that the section used by the board to go into closed session allows them to do so to talk with their attorney about potential or actual litigation. No such litigation existed, Bailey has said. However, as Litten explained, the section also allows a board to go into closed session to receive legal advice on any matter.

At Ferguson’s request, Litten researched whether or not the board violated FOIA. Litten told the board they did not commit any violations on Aug. 11.

Litten’s assertion didn’t keep Bailey from reiterating her disagreement with his assessment. Bailey said Litten should have told the board at its Aug. 11 meeting that they would need to go into closed session to talk about the EMS license matter and that it had nothing to do with litigation.

“So I stand by my non-certification,” Bailey said.

“She can be angry if she likes but she’s made a fundamental mistake about what the FOIA exemption says,” Litten said, then read the FOIA section.

“Your reading still doesn’t change my mind,” Bailey said. “I disagree.”

“And somehow I expected that but the world will go on,” Litten responded.

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