Board hears attorney on conflict of interest rules

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County leaders received a primer on the state’s Freedom of Information Act and Conflict of Interest Act Thursday.

County Attorney Jason Ham gave a presentation to the Board of Supervisors during a work session primarily because changes in the regulations took effect Jan. 1.

Recent changes include the creation of the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council. Changes reduced the monetary threshold for personal interest from $10,000 to $5,000, and for prohibited gifts from $250 to $100, which also applies to food, beverages and entertainment. The changes included additional prohibited conduct.

“Obviously the vast majority of this is common sense, you know, don’t take bribes is what it really boils down to,” Ham said.

Prohibited conduct includes the use of confidential information for one’s economic benefit.

“You all during the course of your work here will absolutely (be) privy to information that can be turned into money and you absolutely cannot do that,” Ham warned. “Neither can your family members.”

Board members can’t accept money for speeches they might give to civic groups, Ham added.

The act prohibits personal interests in a contract, defined as an agreement involving money. However, the law permits personal interests in a “transaction,” but board members must disqualify themselves from participating unless they meet one of the statutory exceptions, Ham said. The act would prohibit a contract in which the county decided to hire a supervisor’s family member and pay that person more than $5,000.

Board members can’t accept any gift worth more than $100 from a registered lobbyist or anyone seeking to secure a contract with the county, Ham said. The law provides a broad definition of gift but also allows a recipient the opportunity to return the gift.

Supervisors must file a statement of economic interests form by June 15 and Dec. 15 each year. Those records remain on file for five years and are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Conflict of Interests Act includes civil and criminal penalties for violating the law. A judge can order forfeiture of office for a violation and contracts may be voided for up to five years after any action that violates the act, Ham noted.

The attorney also presented information about the Freedom of Information Act, noting that state law requires that newly elected officials receive a copy of the law. Ham also provided scenarios in which the act would apply.

The act says all public records and meetings are presumed open unless an exemption is properly invoked, Ham said.

“It’s a lengthy act because anything that you could think of that you’d want to keep quiet they’ve tried to put in there,” Ham said. “But it’s worth making the point: Emails amongst yourselves are subject to FOIA and that’s a great way to communicate but keep in mind anything you write about public business is something that could be published in the newspaper and they could choose to publish bits of it so be careful with that.”

Pertaining to meeting rules, Ham advised members against engaging in discussing public business when attending a social function. District 5 Supervisor Marsha Shruntz noted that the Farm Bureau holds an event and invites supervisors. Shruntz asked how this situation would differ from a meeting or closed session. Ham said an event is presumably not organized for the discussion of public business.

“You are allowed to go as a group to social functions like that,” Ham said. “It makes your lawyer nervous because you make a good point and one of my jobs is to keep everybody out of trouble and it’s easy to (say) hey, we’re all together, let’s start talking about things that you really shouldn’t.”

Vice Chairman Richard Walker said he would be concerned that the event organizer has a “political agenda” or that it served as a lobbying group. Shruntz said she would consider the Farm Bureau a lobbying group. Chairman Conrad Helsley said individual supervisors are usually asked at the Farm Bureau functions how they feel about certain issues, generally pertaining to farming.

“And we vote on farming issues,” Shruntz chimed in.

District 2 Supervisor Steve Baker, a farmer, pointed out that agriculture is the county’s largest industry. Baker said the Farm Bureau serves as a liaison for farmers and wants to see agriculture continue in the county.

“I have a lot of respect for the people in the Farm Bureau and I would not say they are a lobbying organization at all on the local side,” Baker said.

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