Council’s closed session raises questions

Strasburg Town Council voted to purchase a property for $100,000 in a closed session last Thursday, but analysis of the real estate contract and interviews with council members raise questions regarding the legitimacy of closing the session to the public.

According to the contract, Town Manager Ryan Spitzer signed for the purchase of the property at 218 E. King St. on Aug. 15, and the seller, Geraldine Brown, signed Aug. 19. The contract states that it was contingent upon the approval of Town Council by last Thursday’s meeting.

Council met last Thursday to hear comments from the town before closing the meeting to the public to deliberate, and reopening for a vote.

Virginia Code Section 2.2-3711 allows for the closure of public meetings under certain situations, including acquiring real estate when “discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the town.”

However, council met after both the town and the seller had contractually agreed to the $100,000 price.

According to Spitzer, he handled the negotiation process himself and council convened without knowing the details of the contract.

“I went into that meeting without Town Council knowing what I had negotiated,” Spitzer said. ” … They did not know what the price was.”

Spitzer said during the closed session that council members discussed the price and whether or not it was worth the entire $100,000.

He continued, saying after the price was agreed upon, council members then negotiated whether or not a purchase should be made.

“It started out being about price, and then, ‘Given the price and given the requirements of the grant, should we go ahead and purchase it?'” Spitzer said.

When asked whether the discussion of the town buying the property would affect its bargaining power, Spitzer said he believed it would.

Mayor Rich Orndorff Jr. said he closed the session to give the council time to deliberate the price. While he declined to say specifically what was discussed in the closed session, he said the council discussed items relevant to the purchase of the property not regarding the price.

“There were several considerations during the closed session,” Orndorff said. “I can’t go into detail, but comfortably I can say there were price considerations, and there (were) talks about whether or not to purchase (the property).”

Councilman Don Le Vine said although the town agreed to the $100,000 price tag, council could have rejected the offer, returned its deposit and renegotiated a lower price.

When asked, he said he could not discuss what was said in the closed meeting.

At the council’s meeting last Thursday, members voted 5-1 to enter a closed meeting. The lone dissenting vote, Councilman John “Red” Hall Jr., said he doesn’t believe in the use of closed meetings.

“I haven’t seen anything that our adult citizens of Strasburg shouldn’t be able to hear in these closed sessions,” he said. “To me, these are some major decisions being made, and I don’t see why the citizens shouldn’t know that.”

In an interview a week after the closed session, Hall said things were discussed in the closed session that were not just about the price of the purchase.

“Everything in the closed session was concerning the property, not just price,” Hall said. “Anything concerning the property is and was discussed in the closed session.”

Town attorney Nathan Miller said the conversation regarding price and whether or not the town should purchase the building cannot necessarily be broken up into discrete parts, but all fall under the FOIA clause of affecting the town’s negotiating strategy.

“The negotiation includes more than just the price,” he said. “It’s the terms of the use, and whether it even makes sense to buy it or not.”

Council purchased the property with the intention of using the space for an urban park. From the date of the contract signing, it will spend 60 days attempting to repurpose the Brown building for use in the park before it demolishes it outright. The council voted 4-2 to purchase the property, with dissenting votes from Hall and Councilwoman Kim Bishop. Councilmembers Jocelyn Vena and Seth Newman were absent for the vote.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com