County board strikes new deal with law firm

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County will stick with its current provider of legal services after a short search and debates among supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 on Tuesday to award a contract to Litten & Sipe to serve as legal counsel to the county government. The board chose the Harrisonburg firm over Miller, Earle and Shanks. Litten & Sipe will serve at the pleasure of the board but not under a contract, Assistant County Administrator Evan Vass said Wednesday.

The firm will charge the county at 75 percent of its regular rates. Depending on the attorney or paralegal involved in the work, the county could pay between approximately $94 and $244 per hour. Miller, Earle and Shanks’ rates range from $100 to $275 per hour.

District 2 Supervisor Steven A. Baker made the motion to select Litten & Sipe, the firm he and other members had supported in the past.

Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz, who tried to put off hiring or advertising for a new county attorney until next year, voted against picking Litten & Sipe.

Shruntz said she felt the board should have put off the matter until after the beginning of the year. Shruntz said she felt disappointed only two applicants responded.

“I also felt like the way this has been put forth, some county firms … were looking to wait to see until Jan. 16 how the board was gonna be made up after the election, and that’s one reason I think maybe a county firm did not put in for the position,” Shruntz said.

Nothing would have changed had the county put off advertising the position until next year, Bailey said.

“This would have given us new eyes on the process by waiting ’til Jan. 1,” Bailey said. “I would have liked to have had a discussion about consolidating the attorneys we have for the county.”

Separate attorneys represent the county government, the School Board and the Social Services Board, Bailey said.

“So this was, in my mind, a waste of time at this point,” Bailey said.

Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley didn’t attend the closed session the board held to interview the applicants. Helsley said he didn’t think a couple more months would have made a difference. Helsley said he had concerns about the cost proposed by each firm, noting that Litten & Sipe charges less than the other. He also had concerns about securing a contract. Both questions were addressed, Helsley said.

However, as Helsley noted, neither of the firms requested that they work under a contract. Chairman David Ferguson said Nathan Miller’s firm has letters of agreement and rate schedules – not contracts – with its municipal clients and he serves at the pleasure of their elected bodies. Miller would accept a contract if required but such a deal works to his advantage, not the county’s, Ferguson recalled. Miller told Ferguson of an instance in which a municipality dropped an attorney but had to pay the person their salary anyway because they worked under a contract.

Litten & Sipe’s new rate schedule means the county will be paying more for their services than what it costs now, Ferguson noted.

“That is something we gained out of this exercise,” Ferguson said. “But it was still way less than the other bid so I think we are still getting a fair and reasonable price.

“It was pretty evident in the presentation to me that the expertise at all level of services that you would expect from an attorney was there and I think this county has been very fortunate to have had the services of Litten & Sipe for what we’ve had to pay and the arrangement we’ve had for all these years,” Ferguson added. “I don’t think there’s any local attorney that has the depth and breadth that we would get from either of the two that applied.”

County Attorney J. Jay Litten steps down from the position effective next month to take the position of town superintendent in Bridgewater. The change announced this past summer came months after Bailey and Shruntz fought to have the board look for a new attorney or law firm, or to at least advertise the position and secure a contract. At one point the board took action to restrict Bailey from even discussing the attorney position at their meetings. Only after Litten announced his departure did county officials and some of the other supervisors agree to advertise the need for legal services. Bailey and Shruntz sought then to put off the advertisement until after Jan. 1, citing the potential change in the board’s membership from the Nov. 3 election. Baker and Helsley retained their seats on the board. Ferguson lost his District 3 seat to newcomer Richard R. Walker.

Also at the meeting, the board:
• Reappointed Blake Phillip and James Zerkel II to the Industrial Development Authority for four-year terms
• Approved a request by Sheriff Timothy Carter to appropriate $48,836 from the asset forfeiture fund for the agency. Carter plans to use the money to hire a consulting firm to conduct a study of the salaries paid to sworn officers. Carter also plans to use the money to buy and train a drug dog, body cameras and maintenance and for training.

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