County might advertise for new attorney

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County might seek new legal counsel, possibly ending its long relationship with a Harrisonburg law firm.

County Administrator Mary Beth Price advised the Board of Supervisors at a work session Thursday that members could go through a competitive process to procure legal services from law firms or attorneys. The county could issue a request for proposals and select from those submitted.

County Attorney J. Jay Litten advised board members and Price in mid July that he intends to resign from his appointment because he accepted the town superintendent/town manager position for Bridgewater. Litten begins work with the town in January.

“In light of this, I felt that this would be an opportunity to issue an RFP,” Price said.

The board will discuss the matter at its Aug. 25 meeting and could decide to have the administrator advertise for the proposals.

Price asked the board to consider the term length if supervisors desire to use a contract and to identify any other services a county attorney should provide. The board should consider whether or not to pay an attorney on an hourly basis or through a retainer, or to negotiate the matter with the offering lawyer or law firm, Price noted. Should the board include additional requirements pertaining to education or skills, she added.

The county has employed the services of his firm, Litten & Sipe, since the late 1990s through a memorandum rather than a contract. Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz have supported in the past an effort to advertise for legal services and execute a contract with a firm. They have criticized the use of the firm through an arrangement made years ago.

Bailey said, “I’ve thought a lot about this so I’m definitely for the RFP and I think we ought to … have a retainer and then an hourly fee and how many meetings do we need for them to be here and, of course, the attorneys compete for the position.”

However, several supervisors remained supportive of using Litten & Sipe.

Price distributed information to the board showing how the county’s spending on legal services provided by Litten and the firm was divided in the past fiscal year. Services range from department legal advice and meeting attendance to finance and procurement, personnel-related matters, property acquisition and disposition and zoning and code enforcement. Litten and the firm also have provided services in economic development as well as board correspondence. Approximately 1 percent of Litten and the firm’s work dealt with representing the county in litigation.

Assistant County Administrator Evan Vass explained that the percentages can change in a given year depending on the needs. Litigation took up a minimal amount of the legal services provided in 2015, Price noted.

Data provided by Price also showed how much the county budgeted for legal services and how much it spent in a given fiscal year. The county budgeted $95,000 and spent $73,305 in fiscal 2010; budgeted $95,000 and spent $48,654 in fiscal 2011; budgeted $85,000 and spent $98,829 in fiscal 2012; budgeted $68,500 and spent $112,730 in fiscal 2013; budgeted $100,000 and spent $62,109 in fiscal 2014; and budgeted $72,000 and spent $74,508 in fiscal 2015.

Supervisor David Ferguson asked why the county’s legal expenses nearly doubled in fiscal 2013. Price explained that the county faced several lawsuits that year brought on by or involving resident Mark Prince. Lawsuits were filed over the county’s borrowing for projects such as the Edinburg School renovation and the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail. Shruntz was a plaintiff in one suit. The county prevailed in all the lawsuits.

A proposal in a memorandum for legal services with the county dating to 1999 shows that legal services would cost $75,000, Price said. Vass described the document as a memorandum of engagement of their services. Bailey argued this did not constitute a contract. Ferguson disagreed.

“It’s a service agreement – call it what you will,” Ferguson said. “It did have the pricing and what they would provide and it would appear over the years we’ve gotten a very good service from a reputable law firm with multiple lawyers representing different facets who’s even taken us to the state Supreme Court and won cases for us.”

Ferguson said the county spent an average of $75,000 per year for legal services from Litten & Sipe.

“It’s gonna be very interesting when you go out for a contract now and see who’s going to come in and provide that service for less than that,” Ferguson said.

Supervisor Steve Baker said he thinks “we’ve been well-served over the years by this firm.”

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