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Nancy Smith

Virginia Sherlock, Martin County Litigator de Sade

August 10, 2014 - 6:00pm

No one elected her. And if somebody appointed her -- or pays her a salary -- nobody seems to know who that person is.

Nevertheless, sometime during the past couple of years, Virginia "Ginny" Sherlock, an attorney best known for the land-use lawsuits she's filed against Martin County, quietly became the driving force -- the single most important person -- in Martin County government.

Sherlock is known by different descriptions. She's either "the sixth County Commissioner," or "the real Martin County administrator," or just ... well ... "trouble," as in "Here comes ..."

Mainly, she's a highly intelligent manipulator -- the more public face of the Martin County power triumverate that includes former County Commissioners Maggy Hurchalla and Donna Melzer. Melzer is also a lawyer, by the way. The point is, it's those three who make all the decisions -- yes, all of the ones that matter -- for the Sarah Heard-led County Commission.

They're the ones who strategize about "our Martin County protections." Sherlock's main job is putting her toe behind county staff and commissioners to make sure what's supposed to happen, happens.

Sherlock's manipulative power is best seen in the dozens, the hundreds of directives she writes in aid of the Hurchalla-Melzer-Sherlock agenda. Her communications skills are legion. She's a master.According to a Washington Press Club bio online, Virginia Pitt Sherlock was a journalist with the Associated Press from 1972 to 1978 "who became a named plaintiff in the Title VII sex discrimination case against the Associated Press."

In the interviews she had with the Press Club, Sherlock "comments several times on how the skills she learned as a journalist -- the ability to conduct research and write copy quickly -- have been beneficial to her in her law career."

Martin County insiders say, to see her influence, you have to be part of the goings-on at county hall: Midlevel employees fear her, upper-level employees yes-m'am her. But nobody deigns to cross her.

Anecdotes about Sherlock roll off the tongue like a roster call.

"She carefully builds a case to have people she doesn't want around fired," one county employee told me. "She's brilliant at it. It's best if you see her coming, you just smile politely and keep on moving."

Brett Lear, director of Martin County Library Systems, was loved and respected by his advisory board, same for the Friends of the Library. But board members say he wasn't the director the commission majority -- or Sherlock -- wanted. He was harassed endlessly over nonissues, as much by Sherlock as by the commissioners, and earlier this year he'd had enough, took a library director job in Sonoma, Calif.

Speaking of libraries, months ago Barbara Clowdus, editor of Martin County Currents, known for her columns critical of County Commission actions and sometime inaction, was told she could no longer leave copies of her paper at the library or in the County Administrative Center lobby. A memo from Sherlock to the county administrator slapped a ban on that practice. (Yes, that's the same Sherlock who was a former journalist and protector of the First Amendment.)

In Hobe Sound, some called Sherlock's tactics "cruel" and "sadistic" after she published a piece in the Oct. 21, 2013, Martin County Times turning Flash Beach Grill ownersRobert and Anita Breinig "into uncaring, cold, scofflawing business people who don't give a damn about Martin County." Read the story for yourself. No wonder theZeus Park Newsletter editor refused to print the flyer announcing a rally held in the Breinigs' behalf.

Before virtually every commission meeting, Sherlock distributes notes to commissioners about items coming up on the agenda, advising them how to vote. Nothing subtle -- she outright tells them, on everything of consequence, from dredging the inlet to airport customs. Oddly, almost always, commissioners do exactly as they're told. In fact, during one meeting Commissioner Ann Scott of Jupiter Island -- a former judge, no less -- used word-for-word phrases from Sherlock's brief to substantiate the case for her vote.

Sherlock's influence crept up on the county. It was aided dramatically by her friendship with County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Heard and the election of a new commission majority in 2012. Remember, she and Heard long have been allies by association with the Martin County Conservation Alliance (of which Melzer is president). Sherlock's involvement in Alliance lawsuits against Martin County is well-known.

The secretary of state's public records in Tallahassee show a connection, too, between Virginia Sherlock and the Jupiter Island organization Guardians of Martin County Inc. When the Guardians filed articles of incorporation with the state on March 6, 2009, Sherlock was listed as a director, as was another of Hurchalla's friends, Sally O'Connell. Then, on May 10, 2010, the Guardians filed an amendment to their articles of incorporation and in their April 3, 2014, annual report, Sherlock was not mentioned as a director. She is the current registered agent.

I am still looking for the Guardians' federal form 990 to see a record of their expenses. They are registered as a 501(c)3, a nonprofit, meaning they are not allowed to engage in political activities of any kind.

And lawyer Sherlock represents former County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla against Lake Point. Yet, when Sherlock spoke at the 2014 Martin County Growth Management Forum against SLAPP suits -- using Hurchalla as a victim -- what do you know, she forgot to come clean with her own stake in the case. Have a look at the video.

I wanted to ask her about that, and about transparency in other areas, including her involvement with the Martin County Times. I wanted to ask if she has any idea why a letter from The Pacific Legal Foundation, dated July 18, has not been posted on the county's website. The letter advises Martin County that it's moving illegally against Flash Beach Grill. (See letter in the attachment below.)

I had a lot of questions for Virginia Sherlock. But she didn't return any of my calls this weekend. What a shame.

Reach Nancy Smith via email at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423, or follow her on Twitter: @NancyLBSmith.

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