Vocal vitriol over town lease with councilwoman’s farm – The Suffolk News-Herald

A land use issue involving Councilor Shelley Butler-Barlow has raised a point of contention with another councilor who faced a similar issue early in her first term on council.

Before the heated discussion ended at the February 16 council meeting, LeOtis Williams had called Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett a coward for abstaining in a vote to deny Williams a municipal contract for his business. lawn care.

As the word fell from his mouth, Williams immediately apologized as Mayor Mike Duman ordered the meeting and Bennett said the comment was unwarranted.

Williams also publicly apologized later in the meeting for his comment towards the vice mayor.

The discussion began after city purchasing officer Jay Smigielski told council that the city would lease about 61 acres in the 1,172-acre Lone Star Lakes Park in the Chuckatuck area of ​​northern Suffolk, at Cotton Plain Farms Inc., the Barlow family farm. possesses.

The lease is for one year, with an option to renew for four additional one-year periods at a cost of $3,175 per year, with no rent increase for the five-year period. The city received only one bidder, namely Cotton Plains Farm, and the property can only be used for agriculture. Hunting, trapping, signaling or timber harvesting is prohibited.

Butler-Barlow, after the overview, said she had to abstain from discussing and voting on the matter, and indeed, did not speak about it and abstain from voting. The board voted 6-0 in favor of the lease, with Butler-Barlow and Bennett abstaining.

And while no one spoke at a public hearing on the matter, the discussion to authorize the lease generated plenty of vocal vitriol.

Williams, before making a motion in favor of the ordinance authorizing the lease, said the city was entering into a contract to lease the land to Butler-Barlow and her husband. He recalled that he had a similar situation before the council on February 3, 2021.

His company, LW’s Lawn Service, at the time had a pre-existing $157,000 contract with the city that was set to end on Feb. 28, 2021, a year ago, after the city informed him that it would not. would not renew. Williams said he has two contracts with City, one with one year remaining and another with two years.

“Let me clear the air,” Williams said. “It was not a conflict of interest, because it was about pre-existing contracts. But the ethics board recommended that the city council pass a resolution to allow me to continue with my contracts.

He also said he wanted to clarify the amount of money he and his company had lost, putting the amount at over $300,000, “which I gave up because I wanted to serve my people and the people of this town, and the people who believed in me enough to elect me as their councillor.

“Yeah, I lost a lot of money, but it was worth it,” Williams said.

He noted that the contract between the city and the Barlow Farm expired on December 31, 2021 and was no longer in effect.

At the February 3, 2021 meeting, Councilman Lue Ward had proposed drafting a resolution for council consideration later that month to allow Williams and his company to bid for landscaping services for the town. city ​​through a competitive and sealed bidding process.

Ward and Mayor Mike Duman supported the resolution, while Councilors Donald Goldberg, Roger Fawcett and Tim Johnson voted against. Bennett abstained and Williams did not vote since the matter was about his business.

“Let me give you the definition of abstention,” Williams said during the discussion before making a leave motion. “He formally refused to vote for or against a proposal, a motion.”

Williams said several residents told her they considered running for council, but then decided against it after seeing what had happened to her.

Fawcett asked City Attorney William Hutchings Jr. to clarify whether Butler-Barlow was the plaintiff.

“She may not be the petitioner, but she has a personal interest as defined by Virginia code under the Conflict of Interest Act,” Hutchings said, noting there is an exception. to allow an agent of a government agency “to lease property from the agency if they do not participate in the lease itself on behalf of the city council, which is why Councilor Butler-Barlow refrains from participating to this action.

Hutchings, responding to Fawcett, said there was an exception, “which is why there is no conflict”.

Goldberg asked if there was a difference between having a contract in which the city pays them versus a band that pays the city. Hutchings said there is no distinction in the Conflict of Interest Act in this regard, but it does have a section regarding contracts with the public body, and there are exceptions based on the type of contract, and each has its own requirements.

Ward asked Hutchings about the city’s newspaper advertisements, noting that he had his own newspaper before he was elected to council, and repeated his point about there being different exceptions for different types of contracts.

“The simple answer is the General Assembly so that there are different rules for different types of contracts,” Hutchings said.

Ward recalled that Myles Standish, who had been Suffolk City Manager from 1994 to 2002, gave him a year-long advertisement for his newspaper. Ward then asked if the board could now decide whether he could have such publicity for his newspaper while he was on the board.

Hutchings said he couldn’t advise Ward on this because he didn’t know enough about the ads and how they fit the criteria. He said he could talk to Ward about it later, but advised him to get the opinion of the ethics board to find out if he would have a conflict.

The town attorney said council “had the power to decide that the town would continue to enter into a contract with council member Williams. In this particular exception, that’s the step. The step is that the council must decide that the city would continue to enter into a contract with council member Williams.

Ward asked if the board could decide in the future whether or not to allow a contract with an elected person to the body. Hutchings said it depends on the contract the person is entering into. He also asked if Butler-Barlow should step down again once the contract expired and if it should be renewed. Hutchings said she would if council had to vote on renewing the lease.

Williams then reiterated his point about his City contracts expressing his support for Butler-Barlow, but said the difference was that his contract was up and his had expired.

“This board chose to take those contracts away from me,” Williams said, “because it was this board’s decision. But I’m not the kind of person, and it’s not in my DNA, to have Feeling like if I’ve been hurt, I’m going to hurt someone else.

Bennett said his understanding of the difference between the two contracts was that, in the contract with Cotton Plains Farms, he paid the city and did not collect from the city, as Williams’ business did.

The default rule, Hutchings said, repeating his point, is that a council member cannot have a contract with his locality, but state code provides exceptions.

Williams said he already had existing contracts and was not asking the council to allow him to bid on a city contract, but they voted against allowing him to pursue them.

“Now, Mr. Bennett, you sit there and you,” Williams said, pausing before Duman asked him to refrain from directing his comments specifically at the vice mayor. “I have already made a motion that we accept it. I’m finished.”

After Duman sought to clarify the discussion, Williams said that even with the difference in the nature of his contracts and the only approved advice for Butler-Barlow and his family farm, “he still has the same thing – he ends and it renews itself until it expires.”

Duman wanted Hutchings to look into the matter with renewal clauses. Williams said it made no difference since he had already lost the contracts.

“I just want to make sure that the next person who is in a similar situation to me and council member Butler-Barlow, who wants to serve our city, isn’t stripped of their livelihoods,” Williams said.

Bennett said his vote to abstain on Williams’ City contracts was “not a yes or a no”.

Williams could then be heard referring to Bennett as a coward, then saying he was sorry three times.

“I don’t appreciate that,” Bennett said.

Duman asked for a 10-minute break as Bennett asked to clear things up.

“It’s clear,” Williams said.

Bennett was then given the opportunity to make his point and said no one would tell him how to vote.

“I want the public and everyone else to know one thing. If I say yes, I mean yes,” Bennett said. “If I say no, I mean no. I’m abstaining, it doesn’t mean I agree or disagree. I have that right. You have the same right to do anything when you vote. … I don’t take instructions I don’t look at color when I vote I look into issues and make sure that whatever I vote I can respond to anyone who approaches me and asks me a question about why I voted as I voted. I can answer them. I can give them an answer.

When the vote on the Cotton Plains Farm lease took place after the break, Bennett abstained.

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