By Debbie Hall
A majority of the Patrick County Board of Supervisors attended an April 12 event relating to the sale of the local hospital. The event was organized by those associated with the purchase of the hospital and held at the Primland Resort in Meadows of Dan. It was not publicly advertised.
“I think they wanted to keep it a little secret,” board chairman Clyde Deloach said, and added that the supervisors attending the event had discussions beforehand to ensure their attendance was within the law as outlined by the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Public meetings are defined as those that include “work sessions, when sitting physically, … as a body or entity, or as an informal assemblage of as many as three members or a quorum, if less than three, of the constituent membership, wherever held, with or without minutes being taken, whether or not votes are cast,” according to FOIA.
Alan Gernhardt, executive director and senior attorney of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, said the law includes two exceptions: One states that Virginia FOIA does not cover attendance of members of a “public body at any place or function where no part of the purpose of such gathering or attendance is the discussion or transaction of any public business, and such gathering or attendance was not called or prearranged with any purpose of discussing or transacting any business.”
Deloach said “we talked about being in the same place, and not talking business.” Once there, “we never gathered” in a group of three or more, and “we sat at different tables. We were careful to not all be together more than two at a time,” he said, and added, “we looked at it (attending) as if we were going to the fair” or another event.
“We knew there was a possibility of crossing the line, and we took steps to avoid it. It was the first time I’ve pushed it that far, and I can’t think of any other time when I would” again, Deloach said. “I was careful not to cross the line.”
Deloach, of the Blue Ridge District, said business was not discussed, although “one woman asked me what I think Patrick County wants in a hospital.”
Other board members, including Doug Perry, of the Smith River District, said an opinion was solicited from the law firm representing the county in advance of attending the event.
According to previous reports, the county hired the Salem-based law firm of Guynn, Waddell, Carroll, & Lockaby, P.C. last year when former county attorney Alan Black stepped down.
Perry said Geri Hazelwood, county administrator “works hand-in-hand” with the firm. He added that she contacted the attorney, and it was his understanding the attorney “signed off on” the board attending.
Jim Guynn, an attorney with the Salem law firm, declined to discuss specifics due to attorney/client privilege/confidentiality. However, in a similar hypothetical situation, he believes attendance would be permitted.
Denise Stirewalt, of the Peters Creek District, said she learned the company that purchased the hospital requested “a meet and greet” with local elected officials and others after receiving an invitation from a consulting firm working on the project.
She too, noted that Hazelwood “talked to the county attorney, plus we have the information” in training materials indicating supervisors could attend without an issue.
“As long as we don’t talk county business, it would be fine, and we didn’t” discuss county business, Stirewalt said, and added that board members did not gather together, were seated at different tables, and “some were inside, and some were outside” during the event.
“The only time we were together” inside was when speakers were addressing attendees. Even then, “we were not sitting together,” Stirewalt said.
Like Deloach, Stirewalt said she talked to a representative of the company that purchased the hospital.
“The doctor went around and talked to everyone in the room” to determine what the county wants in a hospital, she said.
Clayton Kendrick, of the Mayo River District, said he also was told an attorney signed off on members attending the event, “as long as we didn’t get together. We did try to stay at opposite tables, and some of us were inside and outside.”
Kendrick also said there were no discussions, aside from “a doctor who kind of told us” plans for the hospital.
Brandon Simmons, of the Dan River District, said he declined the invitation based on his previous experience as a member of the Patrick County School Board.
“I was concerned with all the board members being there. You need to let everybody know all the board members are going to be there at one time” in advance, he said.
Hazelwood did not return a call for comment.