Tempers flare over end of councilman’s business contract with city

Published 11:28 pm Wednesday, February 3, 2021

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Following heated discussion among Suffolk City Council members, they voted 3-2 against a resolution supporting new Whaleyville Borough councilman LeOtis Williams’ bid to rebid on the contract his business has with the city that will expire at the end of this month.

Councilman Lue Ward, during the Feb. 3 meeting, made a motion for the city attorney to draft a resolution to consider at its meeting in two weeks that it is in the public interest to allow Williams and his business, LW’s Lawn Service, to bid for city landscaping services in a competitive, sealed-bidding process. Its $157,000 contract with the city is set to end Feb. 28 after the city notified him earlier this month that it would not renew it.

Ward and Mayor Mike Duman voted in favor of the resolution, while Donald Goldberg, Roger Fawcett and Tim Johnson voted against it. Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett abstained, and Williams did not vote since the matter concerned his business.

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Williams held a press conference Jan. 28 asking for the resolution to support his business, and his supporters held a rally outside City Hall as the council’s work session with the School Board was ongoing.

A number of Williams’ supporters, including some employees, spoke during the council meeting in support of the business and resolution as well as during the rally.

After Ward put forth the resolution, discussion got tense among council members. Johnson said that, as a businessman, he lost business from the city when he first was elected to council and was not pleased with that initially, but later understood it was a conflict of interest.

“All of us have made the choice to run for council,” Johnson said. “When you do that, you accept the Code of Virginia, which says no person elected or appointed as a member of the governing body of a county, city or town, shall have a personal interest in any contract with that governing body.”

Johnson praised Williams’ work with the city, but said that “for us to sit here and state that it is in this city and public’s interest to let you continue with that contract, if there were no one else to do the contract and you were a nuclear physicist and we couldn’t find another soul, I’d say fine, but there are others that can bid on this contract and do a good job.”

Goldberg and Fawcett, in particular, took issue with being called out during Williams’ press conference. Goldberg said it was Williams’ choice to run for council versus retaining his business contracts with the city and thus put his employees in jeopardy of losing their jobs. He said the two never talked in spite of Goldberg saying that Williams had planned to call him, and Goldberg said it was “a major conflict of interest” for Williams and his business to have contracts with the city.

Goldberg said the council was due an apology from Williams’ supporters, saying he, Fawcett and Bennett were “slandered with vicious and improper statements, all inferring that we were opposed to Mr. Williams because he was an African American businessman who won a council seat in November. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Fawcett, who noted a similar lawn care business with he and his son, said he vowed when he was elected in 2012 not to enter into any city contracts to avoid a conflict of interest. He said he watched a Facebook Live video of Williams’ press conference and is “truly and sadly appalled by the conduct of a sitting council member,” and said Williams “should have pulled his pants up” and talked to everyone himself. Fawcett said he considered calling for Williams to be censured or to call for him to resign, but said he would wait and see how things play out. He added that he felt Williams needs to apologize to the council and the city.

Fawcett said he felt personally attacked, and said that after Williams had asked to speak to him, that he never did.

Williams, not commenting during the discussion of the resolution, later said that Fawcett owed him an apology, and that he was not asking anyone for favors or to break the law. He said he simply wanted an up or down vote on a resolution, and he got one.

Williams, who defeated longtime Councilman Curtis Milteer and fellow challenger Mike Britt in November, said he would not resign and would not take things personally.

Ward said all Williams wanted was a vote on a resolution to potentially preserve his contract. He said he wanted justice for Williams.

“The only thing Councilman Williams wanted, for three weeks, for you to come up and say what you’re saying now,” Ward said.

Rather than Williams apologizing to members of council, Ward said that “I think we may have to give him an apology for how we treated him since the beginning.”

Duman said he seconded Ward’s resolution because it allowed them to discuss what people in the community had been discussing in recent days. He said he wanted to offer “full transparency” about the process leading to the resolution.

Duman said City Attorney Helivi Holland researched the issue, and had been provided, along with Williams’ attorney, the advisory opinion from the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council. Duman said that the opinion allowed for Williams to keep an existing contract, but that “any renewal or opportunity to bid on future contracts would only be allowed when the contract is awarded, and I quote, ‘as a result of competitive sealed bidding where the governing body established a need for the same or substantially similar goods through purchases prior to the election or appointment of the member to serve on the governing body.

“However, the member shall have no involvement in the preparation of the specifications for such contract, and the remaining members of the governing body, by written resolution, shall state that it is in the public interest for the member to bid on such contract.”

The advisory opinion noted that since Williams was not on council when the contract was awarded in 2019, “he would not have been involved in the specifications for the contracts,” and that, “moving forward, Mr. Williams cannot be involved in future specifications for lawn care services, should he want continued utilization of this contract.”

Duman said, in polling council members, that there was neither sufficient support for letting Williams renew his original contract with the city nor allowing him to rebid his contract thinking it would be in the best interest of the public. However, Duman said there was no additional support for that.

“During the entire process, I kept the council and Councilman Williams informed,” Duman said. “The reasons stated to me by the members in opposition to a resolution was that it would present an overwhelming appearance of impropriety if granted, and therefore was unacceptable.”

Duman said that ran contrary to his opinion and that of another council member, Ward, and that he informed each council member of his opinion.

“As I polled council members, I did not detect any malice, ulterior motive or prejudice that influenced their decision,” Duman said, “and each member is entitled to their opinion.”

Duman said the process to address the issues surrounding Williams’ business “was done strictly in accordance with Virginia Code and the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.”

The mayor said he was dedicated to ensuring that any options available to Williams or council “was afforded.”

At his press conference, Williams expressed fears that he would have to lay off his staff of fewer than a dozen employees.

“It is not a conflict of interest, so why should I be penalized because I decided to run for office,” Williams said at the press conference.

In a Jan. 21 letter to Williams, city purchasing agent Jay Smigielski said that “pursuant to the terms and conditions in the … contract, the City of Suffolk will not be renewing the contract for an additional annual term.”

The end of the contract, he wrote, “is not a reflection of the performance of LW’s Lawn Service.”

Williams vowed to find other business to support his employees, but he still wants the city to take another look at the contract.

“I want the purchasing agent and the officials of the city to take a look at this decision, and do what is right,” Williams said.

Williams said he was responsible for his employees and what his team says, but he vowed to stay on council and serve.

“Let me assure you,” Williams said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to serve my term and I’m going to do what I have to do to provide leadership to those in my borough that supported me.”