Suffolk councilman trades $157,000 city landscaping contract for a $15,000 City Council seat

Suffolk

SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A newly-elected Suffolk City Councilman just lost a $157,000 lucrative landscaping contract with the City of Suffolk.

Councilman LeOtis Williams wants the council to allow him to keep the contract — but he also wants to continue serving on council. The rest of City Council may not be going down that path. 

Suffolk taxpayer dollars are used to pay Williams’ business, LW’s Lawn Service, $157,000 to landscape several city-owned properties, including Suffolk City Hall, the grounds of Riddicks Folley, next door at the Suffolk Visitors Center and Pavilion. The business also cares for 12 other city properties and a few cemeteries.

All that was OK — until Williams was elected to a City Council seat, bringing up the possibility of a conflict of interest between his position on council and the money the city was paying to his business.

The city says it will not renew the contract with LW’s Lawn Service, so Williams lost a $157,000 contract.   

Suffolk Mayor Mike Duman is concerned about potential conflicts of interest, and so is council, 

“A lot of the council members under these circumstances are concerned about conflicts of interest, and what is perceived by the citizens,” Duman said. 

Williams sought opinion from the Richmond-based Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.

“It is not a conflict of interest, so why should we be penalized because I decided to run for office?” Williams said at a news conference Thursday while standing with his employees   

Williams thinks some of those on City Council are playing politics with his contract, and don’t want him to have the contract. During the news conference, he referred to the issues involved as “personal” political ones.

However, the Ethics Advisory Council reminded Williams in an email that “members of city councils are prohibited from having a personal interest in a contract with their own governing body.”

But also noted in the email are four exceptions to that rule, including if there’s “a written resolution that it is in the best interest of the public for Mr. Williams to bid on these contracts.” 

One of the reasons Williams thinks it is important to restore the contract is he is a minority-owned business employing a number of people who rely on his business.

Apparently, though, there was not enough support from Suffolk City Council to pass a resolution that would have allowed for that renewal of the contract. 

Without that support, on Jan. 21, the Suffolk purchasing agent notified Williams the city was not going to renew the contract. 

To that, Williams said he wanted them to reconsider.

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

Duman, the mayor, previously was also under question about a potential conflict of interest, but the Ethics Council in December told him he was in the clear under specific circumstances.

Duman owns a building at 139 E. Washington Street and is the landlord for Suffolk Transit, which was formed using Virginia Regional Transit as the city’s service provider and receives tax-payer money to operate. That agency’s offices are inside.

The circumstances allow Duman to continue to be Suffolk Transit’s landlord if:

  • His personal interest in Suffolk Transit is from income only
  • He can’t participate in any contract process
  • Or he must disqualify yourself from negotiation and approval of the contract

However, for Williams’ case, Duman isn’t sure there is support for a resolution to even allow Williams to re-bid for the contract, and Councilman Roger Fawcett agrees.

“At this point, I am against any resolution to support him because of the appearance of conflict of interest,” Fawcett said.

If council approves that resolution to re-bid, Duman is for it, 

“If his submittal is indeed under the exact same circumstances to see which is the best one for Suffolk then, yes, he should get the contract,” Duman said. 

Williams cares that many of his employees could soon be unemployed.

“Are they going to suffer because I was elected to a position, a position to help them not hurt them?” Williams said. 

Williams could resign, but there’s no guarantee he would win back the contract.  

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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