Conflict of interest talk arises at meeting
MOUNT JACKSON – Tensions flared at the joint town Planning Commission and focus group meeting this week when a question of a potential conflict of interest was brought up.
All eyes were on Commissioner Robert Whitehurst Jr., who owns several hundred acres of land annexed by the town, when Planning Commission Chairwoman Bonnie Good on Thursday night asked any commissioners with a conflict of interest to identify themselves before the meeting.
“I’m going to ask if there’s any official – which would be a commissioner, a council member or anyone else in the room – who is attending this meeting who has a conflict of interest or the appearance of such a conflict pertaining to any agenda items that we have for discussion or voting tonight, please identify yourself and describe your personal interest,” Good said.
Neither Whitehurst nor any other commissioner identified himself or herself as having a conflict of interest.
Whitehurst owns 136 acres in town that is zoned for industrial or business use, and 512 more for agricultural use that the planning commission could rezone. All the land could be used for a mega site for industrial use.
Good said she made the disclaimer because she’s received multiple phone calls from residents angry with what they perceive to be a conflict of interest. She consulted with lawyers who told her the disclaimer would shield her and the commission if there were a conflict of interest at hand.
Good declined to say whether or not she believes Whitehurst has a conflict of interest as a commissioner.
On the other side of the room, after the matter was brought up again in a heated discussion, Whitehurst denied having any conflict of interest.
“It’s being looked into by the commonwealth attorney, and if there’s any conflict of interest, I will step down immediately, no questions asked,” Whitehurst said.
In the past, both Whitehurst and Mayor J.G. “Bucky” Miller have said there should be no conflict of interest so long as Whitehurst abstains from voting on any issues regarding his property.
On Thursday, Whitehurst cast the lone no-vote in a 10-1 majority, voting to combine the light-industrial and heavy-industrial zones into one composite. In a follow-up interview, he said that vote was on something that pertains to the whole town, not just his property. He said he’s just looking to offer his informed opinion into the discussion.
“All I’ve done is give information that I’ve received in working with the property,” he said.
Local businessman Bill Holtzman, who is not a member of the planning commission or the focus group, attended the meeting and spoke at length, giving suggestions for a route forward for the plan, as well as defending Whitehurst, who Holtzman said was unfairly singled out.
“It’s pretty clear to me, Bonnie (Good), that you were singling out Robert (Whitehurst) and that’s unfair and inappropriate,” he said. “I’m not on this committee but I can sit right up and say that.”
The next meeting for the focus group is scheduled for 7 p.m. Aug. 18. The Town Council will meet at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9.
Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or firstname.lastname@example.org