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These things happen

SoVaNow.com / September 21, 2017
The current state of the Halifax County Courthouse renovation project is emblematic of our times: taxpaying citizens of the county are stuck with a plan that no one seems to like and no one is apparently able to change. How do these things happen? Pull up a chair and let’s stew a bit.

As often happens with situations like these, you have to work your way backwards to tell the tale. This is especially true at the present moment because there is now nothing to stand in the way of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors going ahead with a flawed plan for modernizing and expanding the historic Courthouse complex. Opponents had pinned their hopes on the Town of Halifax stalling the project by refusing to issue a zoning permit for construction. After making noises about forcing the county to reconsider its designs, the Town instead caved and granted the permit.

I’ll admit to being a little surprised by this. Lack of legal standing is not ordinarily the type of thing I would have thought would dissuade some members of Halifax Council from taking up the fight over the Courthouse’s future. (In the distant future when portraits are made of Councilman Jack Dunavant, I pray he is memorialized holding a shotgun while blocking a uranium mine site.) Lawsuits can serve political as well as legal ends. It would have been an interesting scrap between the county and town, one that might have drawn surprising reactions from people who haven’t yet been heard on the issue. Ultimately, however, we’ll probably never know. Silence is what happens when shots go unfired.

Of course, Town officials say they’ll continue to press for modifications in the project, and they might achieve a few, but their leverage is nil. And leverage is the only thing that seems to capture the attention of the county’s powers-that-be. The Board of Supervisors has been wholly unresponsive to outside input and suggestions for how the courthouse work should be handled. This closed-loop decision-making process has in turn led to insinuations that supervisors have deliberately misled the public.

Barbara Bass, president of the local Historical Society, has been bird-dogging the Courthouse Renovation Project for years. She recently spoke on her own accord at a Board of Supervisors meeting and scolded members for claiming they were under a “gag order” from a judge who presided over the lawsuit to compel the renovations in the first place. By invoking the specter of a court-imposed gag order, board members — in Bass’s all-but-literal telling — weaseled out of their responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the taxpaying public. For what it’s worth, I have heard others besides Bass say that they were told by supervisors that a gag order was in effect that kept them from discussing the matter.

More than a month ago, I asked County Administrator Jim Halasz about this. Here is his reply: “There is no ‘gag’ order. I am not sure where that term originated. The Board of Supervisors were advised by County Attorney, Jeremy Carroll, that since the County was in a legal proceeding with the Commonwealth it was wise to discuss the matter in closed session so as not to reveal the County’s strategy vis a vis the Commonwealth during the suit — which was what the Board did.” Halasz’s response basically supports the good-ole-boy interpretation of what’s been going on here: there was no actual “gag” order, just legal guidance to supervisors to keep their mouths shut, and maybe some members are guilty of using sloppy phrasing to convey this position to the public. No biggie and my bad, in other words. Unfortunately, sloppiness is a problem that goes beyond the word choices of individual supervisors. All too often it applies to everything this board does.

By the nature of their office, judges were never going to publicly make the case for going forward with Courthouse improvements. (All you really have to do on this score is go tour the building; it’s in terrible shape). Supervisors have exploited the judges’ duty to be discreet to justify their own silence, even though nothing about the judges’ writ ever prevented public discussion on a plan for improvements. “So as not to reveal the county’s strategy” — Halasz’s words — sounds like a red herring to me, an assertion of confrontation with the judges where none had to exist. There’s been a lot of blame assigned to judges who initiated the legal action, especially now-retired Judge Joel Cunningham, who presided over Halifax Circuit Court at the time. Seeing as how supervisors were apparently less than candid with Barbara Bass, one wonders how genuine they’ve been in describing all that the judges have “forced” them to do.

If you want to unspool the timeline backwards, you can start with the current finished Courthouse design, which has all kinds of problems (high cost, incompatibility with the historic buildings and grounds, and unresolved issues such what to do with the building code emergency otherwise known as the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s building) and then think back to the days when the county was basically doing nothing to maintain the Courthouse facility whatsoever. Inaction and reaction — two things we’ve always been good at. But in past years, had a similar situation come to a head, it would have been very unusual for the Board of Supervisors to simply shut down any public input on a project as consequential as the Courthouse restoration. This time something is different. What could it be?

For the answer, it might help to remember back two years ago when the Board of Supervisors was embroiled in a godawful, extremely embarrassing political food fight over a genuinely important issue: the integrity of county administration itself. Sure, personality issues among board members got in the way of rational discourse, in ways that might make a Kardashian blanche, but if anything the unpleasantness made people a little too eager to shunt aside a problem with autocratic government when democratic government is what the county needs. So two years later, we’re surprised that the Courthouse design has been rammed through with virtually no debate and lots of defects? I’m shocked, shocked to find there’s gambling going on in Casablanca.

Of course, there’s a simple rejoinder to all this: that spat among supervisors was settled via elections, and the side that wanted to fire Jim Halasz as county administrator lost. So much for the notion of unelected autocrats. But in reality, the electeds — that is, county supervisors — have greatly deferred to their unelected county administrator (plus county attorney Jeremy Carroll, who almost was fired as well two years ago) to carry the ball on the Courthouse. That combination of an assertive administration and a passive governing board is why we have the plan for the Courthouse that we have today. If that strikes you as a bad arrangement, here’s worse news: once the work to the Courthouse is finished, a testament to this regrettable state of affairs will stand in the heart of Halifax for generations to come.





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