Vocal vitriol over city lease with councilwoman’s farm

Published 8:40 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2022

A land-use issue involving Councilwoman Shelley Butler-Barlow raised a point of contention with another councilman who faced a similar issue early in his first term on City Council.

Before the heated discussion finished at the Feb. 16 council meeting, LeOtis Williams had called Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett a coward for abstaining on a vote to deny Williams a city contract for his lawn care business.

As the word came out of his mouth, Williams immediately apologized as Mayor Mike Duman gaveled the meeting to order and Bennett had said the comment was uncalled for.

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

The discussion started after city Purchasing Agent Jay Smigielski told council that the city was going to be leasing about 61 acres at the 1,172-acre Lone Star Lakes Park in the Chuckatuck area of northern Suffolk to Cotton Plain Farms Inc., the farm the Barlow family owns.

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 increases in rent for the five-year period. The city received just one bidder, that being Cotton Plains Farm, and the property can only be used for farming. No hunting, trapping, signage or timber harvesting is allowed.

Butler-Barlow, after the overview, said she had to abstain from the discussion and vote on the matter, and indeed, did not speak about it and abstained from the vote. Council voted 6-0 in favor of the lease agreement, with Butler-Barlow and Bennett abstaining.

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

Williams, prior to 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 council on Feb. 3, 2021.

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

“Let me clear the air,” Williams said. “It was not a conflict of interest, because they were pre-existing contracts. But the ethics council recommended having the City Council do a resolution to allow me to continue my contracts.”

He also said he wanted to clear the air about how much money he and his business had lost, putting the amount at more than $300,000, “that I gave up because wanted to serve my people and the people of this city, and the people who believed in me enough to elect me as their councilperson.”

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

He noted the contract between the city and the Barlow farm expired Dec. 31, 2021 and was no longer in effect.

At the Feb. 3, 2021 meeting, Councilman Lue Ward had motioned to draft a resolution for council to consider later that month to allow Williams and his business to bid for city landscaping services in a competitive, sealed-bidding process.

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

“Let me give you the definition of abstain,” Williams said during the discussion prior to making a motion to allow. “He formally declined to vote either for or against a proposal, a motion.”

Williams said several residents told him they had considered running for council but later decided not to after seeing what had happened to him.

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

“She may not be the applicant, but she does have a personal interest as defined by the code of Virginia under the Conflicts of Interest Act,” Hutchings said, noting that there is an exception to allow an officer of a government agency “to lease property from the agency if they do not participate in the lease itself on the part of City Council, which is why Councilwoman Butler-Barlow is abstaining from participating in this action.”

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

Goldberg asked if there was a difference between having a contract in which the city is paying them as opposed to a group paying the city. Hutchings said there is no distinction in the Conflicts of Interest Act for that, but it does have a section regarding contracts with the public body, and there are exceptions based on the type of contract, and each have their own separate requirements.

Ward asked Hutchings about city advertisements in newspapers, noting he had his own newspaper prior to his being 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.

Ward recalled that Myles Standish, who had been Suffolk’s city manager from 1994 until 2002, had given him a year-long ad for his newspaper. Ward then asked whether council could now decide on whether he could have such an ad for his newspaper while being on council.

Hutchings said he couldn’t give Ward advice on that because he did not know enough about the ads and how they fall within the criteria. He said he could talk to Ward later about it, but advised him to get an opinion from the ethics council about whether he would have a conflict.

The city’s attorney said council “had the authority to decide that the city would continue to contract with Councilmember Williams. In that particular exception, that is the step. The step is that the council has to decide that the city would continue to contract with Councilmember Williams.”

Ward asked whether council could decide in the future whether to allow a contract with someone elected to the body. Hutchings said it depends on the contract the person was entering into. He also asked if Butler-Barlow would have to abstain again once the contract expires and it is up for renewal. Hutchings said she would if council had to vote on renewing the lease.

Williams then reiterated his point about his contracts with the city in expressing support for Butler-Barlow, but said the difference was that his contract was in effect, and hers had expired.

“This council chose to take those contracts away from me,” Williams said, “because it was this council’s decision. But I’m not the type of person, and it’s not in my DNA, to feel as though, if I’ve been done wrong, I’m going to do somebody else wrong.”

Bennett said his understanding of the difference between the two contracts was that, in the contract with Cotton Plains Farms, it was paying the city and not collecting from the city, as Williams’ business was doing.

The default rule, Hutchings said, repeating his point, is that a councilmember may not have a contract with their locality, but state code provides for exceptions.

Williams said he already had existing contracts and wasn’t asking council to allow him to bid on a city contract, but they voted against allowing him to continue them.

“Now, Mr. Bennett, you sit up there and you,” Williams said, pausing before Duman asked that he refrain from addressing his comments specifically to the vice mayor. “I’ve already made a motion that we accept it. I’m done.”

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

Duman wanted to have Hutchings review the issue 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’s in a similar situation to like I am and Councilmember Butler-Barlow, who wants to serve our city, are not stripped of their livelihoods,” Williams said.

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

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 called for a 10-minute recess as Bennett asked to clear things up.

“It’s clear,” Williams said.

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

“I want the audience and everyone else to know one thing. If I say yes, I mean yes,” Bennett said. “If I say no, I mean no. Nobody makes me change my mind. If I abstain, that does not say that I agree or disagree. I have that right. You have the same right to do anything when you vote. … I do not take instruction from anybody. I don’t look at color when I take a vote. I look at issues and I make sure whatever I vote, I can answer to anyone who approaches me and asks me a question about why did I vote the way that I voted. I can answer them. I can give them an answer.”

When the vote on the lease to Cotton Plains Farm came up following the recess, Bennett abstained.