Whitus looks back on apartment project

Published 12:07 pm Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In part two of Farmville Mayor David Whitus’ interview with Herald Publisher Steve Stewart, Managing Editor Martin L. Cahn and Senior Staff Writer Jordan Miles, he talks about town government, relationships and the recently approved Farmville Town Center apartment project.

Herald: Now that the dust has settled a little bit as it relates to (the) whole (Farmville Town Center) process, as mayor, any regrets about the process leading up to the approval? Would you do anything differently if you were going to start over?

David Whitus

David Whitus

Whitus: Hindsight is always 20/20. I think you can always look back and say, “I would have done this differently” or “I would have done that differently.” I’m not sure anything would have changed the outcome, because — as I tried many times to explain to many different people — it’s a conditional use. And the answer was, “We don’t want the apartments.” That’s not the answer…. And I pushed very hard to have the community meeting. I have always subscribed to the theory … if you bring reasonable people around the table, sit down, we can talk this through. It didn’t turn out as I had hoped it would. But, I think in the end, residents got the protections they were looking for…. (Developer Russell Harper) has to submit a site plan, which council would have to approve. Should he choose to buy land from the town, there would have to be a public hearing.

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Herald: What about the site plan do you all have authority over?

Whitus: Council has to approve the site plan … The placement of so on and so forth of structures on the property.

Herald: So you all would still have the authority even now to tell him “You need to move this building 20 feet this way?” And the same thing with ingress and egress?

Whitus: I’m not sure … Because most of them are pretty simple and straightforward and usually there’s very little discussion. But let’s circle to another item on your list that sort of segues off of that, and that is the planning commission … One of the things, through this process, I realized … the planning commission is not representative of the town … Actually only two wards are represented on the planning commission and then you have one council member and the town manager and they both live in Ward A.

Herald: Whose idea was it for the town manager to come off?

Whitus: Gerry and I had a discussion and we agreed he should come off.

Herald: It was your idea?

Whitus: We had a discussion … Hillary Clinton said something (recently) I think fits me to a T. She talked about all her years of public service and she said, “You know, I have focused more on the service part of it than the public part of it.” And that’s clearly the way I am. I do so many things for service and behind the scenes, and I don’t really want the public, the press (knowing); I’m just not interested in all that. I’m just interested in seeing things get done.

Herald: Do you foresee, coming out of this, any other lessons learned from this process that lead to structural, systemic, policy-type changes moving forward, other than the planning commission?

Whitus: I think there are lots of opportunities there.

Herald: Do you want to name any?

Whitus: No.

Herald: One of the most significant pieces related to the whole process with Mrs. (Willa B.) Wood … and became central to the debate, was how to get in and out of the apartments. The town manager’s role — and this is where we want to get big picture — what do you see as the town manager’s role? Many people say he overstepped his bounds big time … all the way through to making a written commitment during the heat of the debate. So — and we’re not asking you to throw Gerry under the bus — but we want to talk big picture. What is the role of the town manager? Talk big picture about that.

Whitus: Big picture … it is a council-manager relationship. Gerry does not work for the mayor. And I think that’s one misconception a lot of people don’t understand. Gerry works for the council. He reports to the council. And it takes a majority of the council if they want to discipline Gerry or do anything with Gerry. I don’t have a vote and he doesn’t report to me.

Herald: Do you all report to him?

Whitus: No … Of course, when I came along, I’m the third mayor in 42 years … The roles of many began to change on July 1, 2014, because, the charter … says the mayor is the chief executive officer of the town. And that is open to interpretation. I’ve had discussions with a couple of members of the legal community about what does that mean. And it’s open to interpretation as to what the chief executive officer’s job and role is and it’s pretty much what you cultivate it to be … The way I view my role is big picture. It’s to set vision, it’s to be a cheerleader, the economic development, you know, and I don’t get into the operational aspect of the town … Coming from my corporate background, the town manager is the chief operating officer. He would be the COO, the person who keeps the trains running and takes care of the operations on the town. But, again, he does not report to me. He reports to council.

Herald: What about negotiations?

Whitus: He has to be given parameters to negotiate. And most of those occur in closed session. Let’s circle back to that specific case (the Wood property). I had no front-line involvement in that. But here’s how I understand the story unfolded … the town, only needed .46 acres. And when Gerry approached Mrs. Wood about it, she told him she would think about it, she would talk to her realtor and get back with him. And, as he says, when the realtor got back with him, she would only sell 1 acre and she wanted $125,000 for one acre. I wish, in hindsight, none of this would have occurred if she would have just sold the town .46 acres we needed for a retaining … pond. The rest of this would have been history; there would have been no extra acreage to think about doing anything with at all.

Herald: How did the need for a retention pond surface? Was it a regulatory entity saying you all need this, or an engineer?

Whitus: It’s my understanding it was the engineer when they redesigned that intersection, which will make it six lanes, which the engineers said, “You have to have an area for a retention pond.”

Herald: To prevent the intersection from flooding?

Whitus: That would be my assumption. Again, in my role, I don’t dig tremendously deep in all, particularly, the engineering part of it. I take on the surface what I’m told we need.

Herald: So, you give parameters for negotiations, we get that. Ultimate say is yours (the council’s). Now, here’s where there is some inconsistency because in Gerry’s letter in May after the planning commission meeting, he says to Mrs. Wood, “We will not use your former acre of land for anything but a retention pond.” (Ward A) Councilman (Greg) Cole later comes back and says, “That was not this body,” meaning, by deduction, we assume Gerry Spates. So, was he given those parameters for the May letter, which was to say to her what he said?

Whitus: Based on Cole’s comment, you have to assume he was not. And I think Gerry has pretty much said publicly he wrote the letter.

Herald: There’s no question he wrote the letter.

Whitus: But he acted on his own.

Herald: The perception the town manager has too much power in Farmville … is there a perception problem the council needs to address in your view relative to the power of the town manager’s position?

Whitus: As I said a few minutes ago, I think, since July 1, 2014, there’s been a shifting and redefining of roles for council, for the mayor and for the town manager, and I think it’s an ongoing process.