Lawyer tells board about video lawsuit
WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County leaders met in closed session Tuesday to talk about the School Board’s lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office.
The School Board sued Sheriff Timothy C. Carter in Shenandoah County Circuit Court demanding that the law enforcement agency release footage recorded on a bus that purportedly shows an assault involving student athletes.
Supervisors voted 4-2 on the motion to go into closed session. Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz voted against going into closed session. Chairman Conrad Helsley, Vice Chairman Richard Walker and Supervisors Steve Baker and John R. “Dick” Neese voted to approve the motion.
The motion specifically cites the section of the Freedom of Information Act that allows the board to go into closed session for “consultation with legal counsel and briefings by staff members or consultants pertaining to actual or probable litigation, where such consultation or briefing in open meeting would adversely affect the negotiating or litigating posture of the public body; and consultation with legal counsel employed or retained by a public body regarding specific legal matters requiring the provision of legal advice by such counsel.
Alan Gernhardt, staff attorney for the FOIA Advisory Council, said Tuesday that the board would need to have an interest in the litigation to use the first part of the section for the exemption. The second part allows the board to talk to the attorney about specific legal matters but members do not need to have a direct interest in the topic.
The suit between the two agencies doesn’t name the Board of Supervisors. However, both parties to the suit use attorneys paid for by the county. County Attorney Jason Ham represents the Sheriff’s Office as legal council for the county and supervisors. Harrisonburg attorneys Doug Guynn and Lindsay Brubaker represent the School Board in the lawsuit.
“I’m confused,” Bailey told Ham. “Why are we going into closed session about this? I mean are we being sued? Are we a part of the suit?”
“Well, if you want my honest assessment on the lawsuit then it needs to be in closed session,” Ham replied. “I’m defending the sheriff. The county taxpayers are paying for both sides of this and it’s something that I would like to tell you about and I’m not going to tell you about it in open session.”
“But if we’re not involved, I can’t imagine what advice, as it says…,” Bailey said, citing the section of the Freedom of Information Act mentioned in the motion.
“We’re involved,” Walker interrupted.
“What’s the standpoint we’re involved?” Bailey asked.
“We’re paying for it,” Helsley chimed in.
“Well I disagree with us going back there to discuss what?” Bailey said. “The only advice I can see you giving us is just stay out of it unless, like I said, we’re also being sued.
“It looks like we’re gonna take sides on this,” Bailey added. “Are you gonna talk to us about your conversations with the sheriff?”
Ham said, “We’re not going to be taking sides because … I’m representing the sheriff not the School Board.
“The School Board already has a different attorney so this isn’t going to be about choosing sides. We’ve already chosen sides.”
Bailey continued to question the board’s need to talk about the suit other than because the county is paying it. Walker tried to further explain the reason.
“That accountability is a big thing,” Walker said. “We have to be able to address it. Communication and accountability…”
“Address what?” Bailey interjected. “I mean there’s been a lawsuit filed. The attorneys will have to be paid. I don’t understand what else we would need to be going into closed session for and I think it raises a whole lot of questions as to why we’re going into closed sessions. I think we’re opening ourselves up for problems down the road.”
Walker again argued his point.
“I think it’s our responsibility to stay informed since the county attorney is our agent in defending the county and, from our standpoint, as far as being able to maintain that accountability and get some questions asked and answered by county employees, I think it’s our requirement, part of our oversight, to determine what the situation is,” Walker said. “We have two aspects of county government suing each other and we’re supposed to write checks for both of them. I’m not very happy about that.”
“None of us are,” Bailey said. “But I don’t see where going into closed session is going to change that.”
Walker reiterated his view on the board’s responsibility for oversight. Bailey asked what the board could “give to the conversation” about the lawsuit.
“We’re not necessarily going to give; we’re gonna learn,” Walker said.
Baker chimed in and said: “We’re the governing body. We really need to be apprised of what is happening.”
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org