The extension of a contract with Wheeler Emergency Management Contractors was the sole item on the agenda when the Washington County Board of County Commissioners met in special session on May 30.
The matter was on the agenda at the May 18 meeting where commissioners voted to extend the contract for 90 days in order to allow Commissioner Wesley Griffin the opportunity to gain more information from Emergency Management Director Lynne Abel and the Clerk of Courts office for clarification purposes.
Wheeler has been overseeing the county’s FEMA work since Hurricane Michael and their contract was set to end on June 1. The company did not accept the 90 days extension which prompted the board to meet in special session to resolve the matter. With millions of dollars at risk and the board having only a $6 million dollar line of credit, should the county not have Wheeler or another contractor in place, millions could be lost or owed to paving contractors.
Commissioner Alan T. Bush motioned to approve the extension for one year with Commissioner David Corbin giving a second. However, before the vote was cast, discussion ensued.
Citizen Benita Crittendon addressed commissioners with a question about why a special meeting was called when a 90-day extension had been approved at the previous meeting. Bush responded to the query.
“My very thought was what if the contractor doesn’t agree to this,” said Bush. “I will speak on this because it is very near and dear to my heart. It upset me very much that we were sitting there about to be in the millions of dollars that the county doesn’t have. We only have a $6 million dollar loan that we would use up in a month. It just infuriated me that we would sit here and put this at risk, I was just flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe I was the only one who saw this, but thank God over the last week, others have seen it as well.”
“I think a lot of times with you guys being in the fishbowl you see things differently than those outside the fishbowl,” said Crittendon. “Sometimes that view is very different.”
Crittendon then went on to voice her opinion that neither Chairman Tray Hawkins nor Bush should vote on the issue due to relationships had with others that work for Wheeler.
“I believe that at least two commissioners should recuse themselves from the vote,” said Crittendon. “Mr. Hawkins father works for Wheeler, and it would stand to reason that, any normal person would assess that his father would no longer have a job with Wheeler if the contract is not continued, at least not in Washington County. The second reason is there is a history of close personal friendship between Mr. Hawkins and the owner of Wheeler, Ben Maddox.”
“I was already speaking so I am going to continue,” Bush said. “This continued harassment by you and Commissioner Griffin of Mr. Maddox is an embarrassment to the county. I don’t understand why y’all take one single person out and vilify him. I’ve never seen him do anything to either of you.”
Commissioner Wesley Griffin addressed Bush.
“Commissioner Bush if you are going to call me out after what was brought to our attention last week and what I discovered last week in between meetings,” Griffin said. “Yeah, I’ve got some concerns. Mr. Bush, I have some black and white, if you’d like to see it, I’ll show it to you.”
After Bush said he didn’t understand the personal vendetta, Crittendon responded by saying, “It isn’t a personal vendetta, it is just calling out facts.”
Crittendon then went on to give her reasons why she believes Bush shouldn’t vote on the matter.
“We have had many conversations over the years and sometimes heated debates but I have no personal vendetta against you, Mr. Bush,” she said. “But you may be angry with me once I’ve finished what I am about to say. You are the second commissioner I think should recuse himself due to your decade’s long friendship with Kevan Parker. Therein is another close personal relationship with someone that should this contract not be renewed, stands to lose his job with Wheeler, at least in Washington County. This is not an attack on anyone, this is bringing attention to things that if someone else were to make a vote on that, they may be criticized for it. This is all I wanted to bring to light today.”
Hawkins then posed the question to County Attorney Matt Fuqua concerning any kind of issue that he needed to worry about when voting on the contract.
“All of you have an ethical obligation to vote on things that you are not ethically prohibited from voting on,” Fuqua said. “So, because you’re a friend, that is not a conflict. Because your father works for a company, that is not a conflict under Florida Statute 112. You are required to vote.”
The votes were cast 3-2 to approve the extension of the contract. Griffin and Commissioner David Pettis voted against the measure.
“What has gotten us into this position is the fact that if Wheeler leaves, we are going to bankrupt the county,” Pettis said. “So, my concern is that if the contract got extended and Wheeler still decides to leave the county, we are going to bankrupt the county anyway. I’d like to make a motion that we put out a Request for Pricing (RFP) for a second contractor to provide this same type of service, that way we have some redundancy. If one decides to leave, we will still have one in place. I don’t want us to be in this same position again.”
The vote on the measure was unanimous.
The Washington County Board of County Commissioners will meet again in regular session at 9 a.m. on June 15.