Interviewee: Penny Wheat
Interviewer: John Babu Noone
Date: March 31, 1994
N: Madame Penny, I am happy to be interviewing you today. This is March 31,
1994, with Penny Wheat, a commissioner of Alachua County. Thank you.
Madame Penny, please tell me your [full] name.
W: My given name is Penelope, although I am called Penny, like nickels and dimes.
My last name is Wheat, like corn and hay, and I am an Alachua County
N: Give me some information about your family background, your childhood, and
W: I was born in 1954 in St. Louis, where my father attended and subsequently
graduated from Washington University medical school. In 1957, early 1958, he
brought the family here to Gainesville and accepted a job offer with the University
to help establish the J. Hillis Miller Medical Center.
N: [Tell me] something about your family members, some details.
W: My mother's name was Erlene; she also was born in St. Louis. I am one of four
children; I am the oldest. My brother, who is two years younger than I, is named
Chip, short for Myron. [He was] named after my father, Dr. Myron W. Wheat, Jr.
My sister Pamela was born six years after me, and I have a younger brother
whose name is Douglas. We are graduates of the public school system of
N: Can you recall some childhood memories of Gainesville?
W: I had an opportunity to compete in sports programs when I was younger. I
swam competitively for fourteen years during the summers and on the
Gainesville High School swim team. Growing up as a child in Gainesville, back
then, was a lot of fun because it was not a large place. It was not a big city, yet
there were always things to do, and growing up in a university town with football
and basketball teams was really quite special.
N: When did you become the commissioner of this county?
W: I first was elected in September of 1986, and I was re-elected in 1990. I am in
the fourth year of my second term right now, and that term expires in November
of this year .
N: What are your contributions as commissioner to this county?
W: I became involved in local government in 1985 because of what I considered to
be a tragedy. In 1985 there was a lot of publicity about what appeared to be a
water-contamination problem. It is called the Old Archer Road incident. Its
location is right across Archer Road from Bennigan's, the restaurant. In 1985
there were a number of people who lived in that area, which at the time was a
neighborhood comprised of older homes on wells and septic tanks. They were
not connected to the municipal water supply, although the water lines ran
underneath the street. My former husband lived there and my son, Justin, who
was three at the time, would visit his dad every other weekend, holidays, and
vacations. He would come back sick. I would spend at least twice a month in
my pediatrician's office trying to determine what was wrong to no avail. That
happened from 1982 to 1985.
In March 1985, I opened the newspaper and saw an article about this area which
quoted my former husband, so I started asking questions. I am intelligent
enough to know that, if there is something wrong with the water and my son
visited there for three years, that might be what caused his illnesses. [I spent] a
great amount of time visiting this commission, asking a lot of questions, [and]
talking with people in the state Department of Environmental Regulation in
To make a long story short, two gasoline stations on the corner of Archer Road
and SW 34th Street, the Texaco and Shell stations, were cited by the state as
parties responsible for leaking gasoline from their underground storage tanks.
That gasoline contaminated the water in the area. One of those wells was the
well that my former husband and my son used. After about six months of very
negative publicity, both the Shell and Texaco oil companies consented to spend
(actually they split between them) $40,000 to connect thirty affected residences
to the municipal water system of the city.
That is basically the way I became involved. I was very concerned not only
about the short-term effects, but also the long-term effects of gasoline
contamination on my son, because he was exposed during his developing years,
between the ages of two and five years old. Subsequent to that, I became the
executive director of an organization I co-founded called Friends of Alachua
County, which was a desperately needed organization at the time (because there
was no organization available to help someone who was unfamiliar with the local
I can remember the first time I came to the county commission in March of 1985:
I burst into tears because I was concerned about not only my son, but the
effects on the other kids out there. Seven of us ended up suing both Shell and
Texaco oil companies, very large, major international corporations.
As part of that lawsuit, we had some studies and tests done on our children.
There were three mothers and our three children, and one elderly woman who
had lived there for a long time. I was the only party to the lawsuit who did not
live there and had not been exposed to the water at all. The litigation was
settled out of court, and although it was settled out of court, the parties to the
lawsuit felt that we made a point because Shell and Texaco ended up paying us
a pretty large sum of money to settle. Your question was what I feel I have
W: I became involved with local government because I believed local government
was not doing a good enough job protecting the public health, safety, and welfare
of my son as well as other people in the area. About eight months ago this
commission learned there were wells contaminated with ethylene dibromide,
EDB, which is a pesticide. A few months ago, this county commission
unanimously voted to direct our staff to bring us all the options available to
provide clean water to those citizens with contaminated wells near Alachua,
whether we connect them to a municipal water system or do something else.
That is very different from when I came to the county commission in 1985. The
five county commissioners at the time twiddled their thumbs. They looked at the
ceiling. They looked at the floor. They said, "This is not our responsibility. We
do not have a problem. There is no problem out there. There is nobody dead
or dying." I was elected, I believe, to make protection of our drinking water a
foremost priority, and I believe we have done so.
N: There are some other conservationist groups like [the group headed by] Marjorie
Carr and all those people. They also are working. In fact, as you said, this
particular Exxon oil spill appears to have left 10 million gallons of oil off the coast
[of Alaska]. There are organizations like Environmental Action Group, Earth
First, Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Are you aware of these
W: In 1985, when I first began getting into county government, I began asking a lot
of questions of a lot of people. I contacted many of the environmental groups,
not only here in Alachua County, but throughout the country. Through this
process, I met many people involved with the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society,
the Environmental Action Group on campus, [and] a number of other groups as
well. Yet none of those groups specifically had in mind public advocacy to assist
somebody with the local government process. Each one of those environmental
organizations had some portion of the environment as their specific concern. By
getting involved in this process and learning a great deal about ground water, I
learned a great deal about a number of other organizations.
I have to admit that I did not consider myself an "environmentalist" before I
became involved in local government. Actually, I never even put a label on it,
even though many of the things I have always done in my life are things that an
"environmentalist" would do. Since that time I have grown to understand that if
there is a label to be ascribed to me it is one of an environmental activist, a public
interest advocate, a consumer advocate. The air we breathe and the water we
drink are the most important resources we have, and if we do not do everything
to protect them and we foul our nest, we will not be here very long. That is
certainly not a legacy to leave to our children.
N: There is a group who seeks a law to halt irradiation. It was a local group. It
appears that they protested against the irradiation of food.
W: I am very familiar with that. I have several files in my filing cabinet.
N: Can you please shed some light on this.
W: I cannot remember the date, I would have to look in my files. I think it was 1987,
1988, and 1989. The federal Department of Energy wanted to enter into an
agreement with the Florida Department of Agriculture. The Florida Department
of Agriculture was looking for a place to establish a food irradiation facility.
Somehow they happened upon the University of Florida to establish that food
irradiation facility. The interesting thing about this proposal was that the federal
Department of Energy would be shipping radioactive cesium to a location within
Alachua County to conduct this food irradiation for, supposedly, the preservation
of food. I believe there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered about the
process of food irradiation, particularly this kind of food irradiation. But more
than that, many people within Alachua County became involved, protested, if you
will, asked a lot of questions that remained unanswered about why Alachua
County would become, all of a sudden, a dumping ground for this radioactive
N: Kiki Carter was involved in this matter.
W: Yes, very much so.
N: Finally, the plant was dropped.
W: The only reason Alachua County did not become a dumping ground for the
radioactive source material of the federal Department of Energy was because
people within Alachua county raised holy hell. They said, "We do not want to be
a dumping ground. We do not want that here." Interestingly enough, the place
on the University of Florida campus where this food irradiation facility was to be
built was right over a sink hole. It did not appear to anyone involved that a lot of
thought had been given to the host community and what the impact might be.
But, yes, it was dropped.
N: And what was your role in that?
W: What was my role in this? Although I am an elected public official, an Alachua
County commissioner, I am a citizen first. I participated in a number of seminars
and continued to ask the questions that would be appropriate for a public-policy
maker to ask. For example, I asked, "How was this radioactive source material
going to get into Alachua County? Is it going to be by rail, is it going to be by
truck? If so, what routes will be traveled? What kinds of preparations need to
be made in case of a radioactive accident? What kind of costs is Alachua
County going to have to bear for something like that? Indeed, if there was an
accident and the fuel rods split and they were to follow a worst-case scenario
(which would mean that they would contact the ground water through this sink
hole), how would the ground water be cleaned up? Who would be responsible?
Who would pay? What would the citizens of Alachua County do in the
meantime?" Those are questions that to this day remain unanswered.
N: Since you are very [concerned] about water pollution, what steps is Alachua
County taking toward providing protected water to the community?
W: In 1985, when the Old Archer Road incident happened, it contaminated thirty
residences. At that time, in the state of Florida, that was the largest amount of
private residences that had been affected by a contamination incident. I believe,
in the state of Florida in 1985, there were only about 250 known locations in the
state where gasoline had leaked from underground storage tanks and had
contaminated either soil or ground water. I am very proud that immediately after
that, Alachua County began a process in which I was able to participate when I
That process established what is called the Underground Tank Containment
ordinance. That was an ordinance Alachua County put together over a couple of
years and would prevent any future accidents from happening. In the state of
Florida our groundwater levels are so high, so near the surface, when you place
a gasoline storage tank in the ground in most places in Florida, it floats in water.
Up until five or six years ago, those gasoline storage tanks were made of steel.
After it has been floating in water for a period of time the tank rusts and gasoline
can flow out.
So the Underground Storage Tank Containment ordinance of Alachua County
required a tank of gasoline to be enclosed in an outer tank; for the piping system
to that underground tank to be enclosed within another pipe; and that there be an
automatic leak detection system on that equipment. If there was a leak from the
inner tank into the outside tank, the leak detection equipment would signal, and
you could shut down the whole system, get in there, and repair that so that no
gasoline would ever get out of the pipes or out of the tank and contaminate
water. Apparently, between 75 and 85 percent of the gasoline leaks that do
occur in the state of Florida, occur from the piping system.
When I began learning about this I had to go to the chemistry library on campus
and spend several weeks there because I was not the best chemistry student in
high school. I had to spend a pretty intense three-week period learning about
chemistry, learning about hydrogeology so I would be familiar with the geology of
the state of Florida, hydrology, the way the ground water travels, and also the
chemical constituents that comprise gasoline. One gallon of gasoline can
contaminate a million gallons of water [so that it is] unfit for human consumption.
Many of the constituents of gasoline can cause cancer years after exposure has
ceased. There are two different kinds of effects: there is the very acute effect
when you are exposed to a lot of gasoline. Immediately you develop certain
kinds of effects. Some of those dissipate over time when you are no longer
exposed to it. But there is also the problem of chronic or long-term exposure.
You are exposed to a little bit of a contaminate over a long period of time. That
can cause a lot of problems later in life.
Unfortunately, my son and other people who lived in the Old Archer Road
neighborhood were exposed through three pathways. There is ingestion when
you drink contaminated water. There is inhalation of vapors. When you turn on
your tap, the vapors escape because the chemical constituents of gasoline are
very volatile. They volatilize into the air. When you turn on your tap, those
vapors outgas. When you turn on the tap and you stand in the shower with
steam coming out, you inhale those vapors. Also, there is skin absorption, and
there are some studies which suggest that swimming or bathing in contaminated
water actually can be more dangerous than ingesting it. Your skin is
compromised of pores, as you know, and you absorb a lot of water through your
So, to set the stage, my son from the time he was two until he was five was
visiting his father every other weekend and vacations and holidays. As a young
child he would take baths [and] would sit in a bathtub with the water on, inhaling
the vapors as the steam came out. As you know, most people take a shower or
bath with the bathroom door closed. That can cause a lot of problems.
Unfortunately, my son and the others exposed face a variety of illnesses [and]
chronic and debilitating diseases in their later life. Some of the chemical
constituents of gasoline, as I said earlier, can cause cancer years after exposure
has ceased. All it takes, basically, is one hit to do the damage, and it sometimes
does not show up until twenty, thirty, forty years later. So I view all of the people
in this situation, as well as other situations around the state of Florida, as guinea
I also view gasoline stations as hazardous material transfer points. We know
that complete containment in this ordinance Alachua County developed is the
key to controlling any toxic release. Unfortunately, the very wealthy and
powerful petroleum companies fought Alachua County [so that they] would not
have to abide by this ordinance. The process we had to follow was very
interesting. One of our state senators, George Kirkpatrick, authored a bill in
1984 which said local governments could adopt environmental laws more
stringent than the state except for the storage of petroleum. What that meant
was local governments could not enact an ordinance to protect drinking water
like we in Alachua County wanted to do. In that case we had to go to the state
and apply for approval. That was a very long, drawn-out, and arduous process
because the state Department of Environmental Regulation also listened to the
petroleum companies talk about what an economic impact this would be and how
much it would cost and how burdensome it was to businesses.
I maintained all along that the major health and social costs of people being
exposed to contaminated drinking water far outweighed the minor cost of digging
up a tank and putting in a new tank and new piping system. Ultimately, in the
spring of 1988, Alachua County gained approval to implement its ordinance. At
the time, we had three very powerful people in the legislature: Senator
Kirkpatrick, Representative Sid (Sidney) Martin, and Representative Jon Mills,
who at the time was the speaker of the house. He now is associated with the
law school here at the University [Jon Mills, Director, Center of Governmental
Those three legislators attached the ordinance of Alachua County to another bill
so that [it] would be "grandfathered" in. The rest of the legislature approved
However, the very wealthy and powerful companies then appealed to the Florida
Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the way in which the
legislature grandfathered in our ordinance was unconstitutional. Not that our
ordinance protecting drinking water was unconstitutional, but the way it was done
was unconstitutional. So we could no longer implement it, and not only that, we
had to return all the fee money we had collected during the period of time we
were able to implement it.
Since that time, the state of Florida has pretty much adopted all the standards of
Alachua County as state law for protection of drinking water when dealing with
storage of petroleum products. However, the state of Florida has adopted time
periods for retrofitting these old rusted tanks with the new double-walled ones.
[The period of time is] much longer than Alachua County would have.
Fortunately, because the containment system has proven so effective, most
intelligent business people and many of the oil companies have recognized that
that is insurance for them. They can be assured with these double-walled piping
systems and tanks that they are not going to have a leak and they are not going
to have to spend anywhere from $250,000 to $1,000,000 cleaning up the site.
As a side note, the state of Florida cited both Texaco and Shell oil companies as
responsible for contaminating the Old Archer Road area. That contamination
was never cleaned up. We were told that the Old Archer Road area the
intersection of SW 34th Street and Archer Road is pitted with so many
sinkholes and limestone caverns that to set up a system to airstrip that water
through a carbon filter, they would have to pump out so much water that it could
cause the collapse of Archer Road and SW 34th Street. Gasoline contamination
has followed the phrase, "Dilution is the solution to pollution," and so it continues
to spread ever outward.
N: Tell me some of the other environmental issues the county administration [has
W: During the past eight years, during my tenure, there was the food irradiation
facility issue [and] there has been the ongoing issue of water contamination.
Just as an example, in 1985, in the entire state of Florida, there were 250 known
sites where gasoline had been proven to have contaminated either soil or
drinking water. I think today in the state of Florida there are some 11,000 known
sites. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that with a gasoline
station on every corner, at least half of them in the entire United States are
leaking. In addition to the gasoline contamination, there are also various other
forms of contamination [such as] septic tanks that do not work [and] other kinds
of hazardous chemicals. There is also the issue of solid waste. What do we do
with our garbage and trash?
There was also another big environmental brouhaha in Alachua County over the
Hunt Club. The Hunt Club was a development on the rim of [Payne's] Prairie
that was approved by a commission first in 1979 and then in 1984. The zoning
for the Hunt Club which would have provided for about 622 condominium units,
very intense development, close together, seventy feet from the rim of the Prairie
was granted by the county commission in 1979. Then in 1984 the final
development permit was approved by the commission. When this issue came to
us it was very apparent that there were a lot of problems with the way this
development received permission to continue every step along the way. This
came to us in 1988 because the developer who had purchased the property
wanted to go ahead and build and applied for some tree-removal permits, and
that concerned a lot of folks down in the area. Number one, the state of Florida
wanted to purchase that particular land as a buffer. The Hunt Club area is
known to the state Department of Historical Resources. It has a number of
known archeological sites on it that are listed on the master list of historic sites in
the state archives. In addition to that, the development itself would release its
storm water from the development into the Prairie, contrary to state law. So a lot
of people got involved in a very big way.
As a matter of fact, there was a student from the Department of Urban and
Regional Planning who was in here doing a study a couple of weeks ago. He
asked to look at my files because he said, "The Hunt Club issue, as that
development came to be known, got everybody upset." School children wrote
us letters. There were people from the Garden Club as well as the Sierra Club,
the League of Women Voters, Habitat for Humanity, and other established
environmental clubs that wrote us.
We also got a lot of national publicity because there were a number of lawsuits
involved in this. The developer sued Alachua County for issuing a stop-work
order. Alachua County appealed that. In addition to the national attention,
there was a point at which a number of people climbed the trees out there so
they could not be bulldozed. I remember sitting in this office one day listening to
the radio. Apparently there was a former editor connected with the Washington
Post (or one of the newspapers up there) who had been traveling through, and
he was talking about this spectacle on NPR [National Public Radio]. As it
happened, the developer himself ran out of money and could not afford to go
forward, so the issue dropped. The point remains that there are a number of
developments of that size and scale right on the rim of the Prairie that previously
were approved by a commission and, in one form or another, still exist. So at
one point some time in the future another developer can come forward and claim
that she or he wants to build a similar kind of project.
The issue of what we do with our garbage and trash is one that is ever present.
The environmental issue of where a landfill is located is one issue with which we
are currently dealing. I personally believe that if we just dig another hole in the
ground and try to bury our garbage and trash, we are not doing ourselves or our
children any favors. Landfills are ticking time bombs. Regardless of what kind
of liners you put in them they always leak. The Alachua County landfill located
southwest of the city of Archer leaked in 1987 and 1988. The Alachua County
taxpayers were faced with having to purchase the land of a number of property
owners who lived there to compensate them [because] they could no longer live
on their property. They could no longer use their drinking water. Some of that
land was in those families for generations.
The issue is, what to do with our garbage and trash? We have since begun an
aggressive recycling program. We do not have as aggressive a composting
program as we should. But more than that, in Alachua County government
there is not an attitude of, "Let us not make garbage and trash. Let us reuse
everything that is possible. Let us not throw anything away. Only after that will
we think about maybe putting something in a hole in the ground." There are too
many technologies out there now for us to be strapped with an archaic
hole-in-the-ground philosophy, which also is going to cost the taxpayers a great
deal of money. There are a number of other environmental issues that also are
ongoing. The big issue in Alachua County has been, and always will be,
development. Building where does it go? How much goes there? What
does it look like? Who pays for it?
You must understand that when I was elected to this commission in 1986,
everyone thought it was a fluke. I was by far the underdog. The local
Chamber of Commerce had done everything they possibly could to stop my
election. And when I was elected in 1986, I joined commissioner Jim [James
Edison] Notestein who was the first true environmentalist ever elected to the
Alachua County Commission. He was elected in 1984. So, for two years
actually, from 1986 to 1988, there were two environmentalists on the county
commission, and we comprised the minority. I would say 85 percent of the time
the votes that this commission costs have to do with administrative, functional,
everyday, ordinary things. But 15 percent of our votes have to do with very
substantive issues: taxing and spending, development, land use, the
environment. And 15 percent of the time Commissioner Notestein and I, for two
years, comprised the minority.
From 1986 until about 1988, there were a number of issues that occurred in
Alachua County regarding development, developers, and their antics.
Developers wanted to build very intense shopping centers right next to
neighborhoods. Developers wanted to come in and totally uproot communities
that had existed for many, many years. I believe that when you choose to
speculate in a land venture, it is you who risk your funds. Taxpayers should not
be expected to bail you out. However, Florida always has been for sale. Ever
since Florida has existed, it always has been for sale--Alachua County is no
different. When I joined Commissioner Notestein in 1986, it was apparent that
those with real estate and development interests very clearly ran this county
If you go back and look at the elections of those who campaigned for county
commission and you look at their contributors' forms (which are public
information that you can obtain from the office of the Supervisor of Elections),
you will find real estate and development interests contributing very heavily to a
majority of the members on the county commission. You also will see those
same people, then, come before the county commission later on and request
zoning changes so they can build a shopping center in the middle of a
neighborhood, or a construction and demolition-debris landfill in the middle of a
From 1986 to 1988, things were very hot and heavy here, because both
Commissioner Notestein and I were very outspoken about protecting the public
interest. Both of us believed, as I still do believe, that we are elected to
represent all of the people in Alachua County and protect the public interest, not
to simply be an agent for special interests like real estate and developers. That
continues to be an issue because with thousands of people moving to Florida
each week, the questions are where do they go, where do we put them, how do
we retain some semblance of the Florida and in this case the Alachua County -
that we knew, with which I grew up? That is why everyone moves here.
Unfortunately, it appears that the real estate and development interests still
control the city commission as well as the county commission.
Another interesting item occurred in January of 1987. We all refer to it as the
"Chambergate" incident. As I said, I was elected in September of 1986. At the
last meeting in December 1986, there were only three commissioners present:
Commissioner Notestein and myself, and Commissioner [Edwin] Ed Turlington,
who retired in 1988 after about twenty years on this commission. At the time,
Commissioner Turlington was Chair of the commission. In that afternoon
meeting at the end of December, Commissioner Notestein and I, who comprised
the majority at that meeting, brought up a number of issues to get onto the table
to discuss. You see, it takes one commissioner to make a motion, and it takes
another commissioner to second that motion to get the idea on the floor for
discussion. Prior to my election in 1986, no one would second any of the
motions of Commissioner Notestein about the environment; therefore, none of
those issues could ever come up for discussion. If they never come up for
discussion, the public can never participate, the public can never provide any
So in 1986, when I was elected, we had the opportunity to get items on the floor
for discussion. We might make a motion, second it, and discuss it. The
discussion might be very quick, very short, because a commission might, as
frequently happened, make a motion to cut off all discussion. A majority of
commissioners always would approve that, and then they would vote to deny or
reject whatever Commissioner Notestein and I wanted to talk about.
With this evening meeting in December, Commissioner Notestein and I
comprised a majority, so we brought up a lot of ideas for discussion to consider
as policy issues. Apparently the other two commissioners at the time,
Commissioner Leveda Brown, who is still on the board today, and Commissioner
Tom Coward, were both out of town. When they got back they were infuriated
about the things we had brought up for discussion as potential policy issues. At
the next meeting in January, Commissioner Notestein and I were roundly
censured by not only the other commissioners, but by a parade of individuals
representing the Chamber of Commerce and the "business elite" in this
The interesting thing that happened afterward was that a tape recording was
released from the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce Executive Board Meeting.
I have a copy of that transcript if you would like to look at it. It is fascinating
reading. At the time this occurred, the Chamber of Commerce had a contract
with Alachua County for economic development. They received $40,000 for
that. In this released tape recording, the then-president of the Chamber of
Commerce (whom Jim Notestein had defeated for election in 1984) and the other
executive board members talk about supporting the majority of the county
commission and figuring out ways to hammer on Commissioner Jim Notestein
and Commissioner Penny Wheat so they would not be reelected. [They talked
about] how to hammer on them, beat them up, screw them up so that they never
would be reelected. Also, this tape involved University President Marshall Criser
[president, University of Florida, 1985-1989], because chamber President John
Schropfer said, "University President Criser had agreed to squelch community
participation" of some faculty members at the University of Florida, particularly
Dr. [Earnest] Dwight Adams, a physics professor who was president of the Sierra
Club at the time, and also Dr. Grant Thrall, a professor of geography and who
was very involved in land use in the community. That was a very ugly episode,
and it brought to light exactly the way business as usual in the politics of old runs.
However, at the same time, there was a new publisher who came on board at the
Gainesville Sun. The new publisher was John Fitzwater, very pro-business, very
pro-development, very anti-environment, [and] very anti-neighborhood. In the
editorial section of the newspaper, as well as in the letters to the editor, a number
of things happened. Editorials were written by the newspaper saying that Jim
Notestein and Penny Wheat brought it on themselves because of their
"extremist" views. For over a year, letters continued to be sent to the editor from
citizens in the community lambasting what had happened. Outraged. It also
grew into a conference on the University campus. Following the events here,
many of the University of Florida faculty were so deeply concerned about the
potential involvement of University President Marshall Criser that Chambergate
spawned an academic freedom conference on campus. Things have not been
the same since, until now. Now the new buzzword for real estate and
development is economic development.
N: I was referencing some of the Alligator news of 1987, 1986, 1985, in which I
came across an editorial about "a growing silence."
W: I remember that editorial.
N: The Chamber of Commerce labeled the University academic persons, scientists
and all that, as if they are anti-development.
W: Anti-business. The chamber called them the intellectual elite.
N: The "Chilling of Anti-Growth Sentiment" was the word the Alligator used.
W: Would you like to know the reason that happened?
N: Yes, please.
W: Because so many people moved to this county, property taxes kept going up
because, you see, property taxes are what pays for county government services.
But there is something interesting that occurs. Let us say you come in, you
buy a piece of land out west, and that land is not zoned for multifamily
development (condominiums). Let us say land is zoned only for single-family
houses. Since there are no city water or sewer lines, you can only build two
single-family homes on an acre of land, but you want to put sixteen condominium
units per acre. Well, the only way you can do that is if you get the city water and
sewer lines out there. Then you ask the commission for a zoning change so you
can build what you want to build. And by the way, since there is no paved
two-lane road there, you need a paved two-lane road out there so you can build
Well, would you like to know who paid for all that? The taxpayers pay to extend
the water and sewer lines and pave the road. Not all the taxpayers benefit from
that, but the developer does benefit directly from that. So, throughout the state
of Florida in 1986 and 1987, people were saying, "Stop. Wait a minute. We
need to figure this out so the people who cause an impact pay for it. People
who benefit directly from a service should pay for it."
Well, the developers in this town fought impact fees for a very long time because
the fees would be charged to the development for the specific impact it creates
on roads, on sewer, on fire service, etc. Alachua County has only adopted a
road-impact fee, and it does not require a developer to pay the full cost of the
impact, only a very small percentage of it. It appears right now that a majority of
this commission wants to do away with that impact fee. Instead of developers
paying for the roads, turn lanes, intersection improvements required by their
development, all the people of Alachua County will pay more gas tax at the pump
to pay for something that benefits only a few. That is why the issue came to the
forefront and continues to be an issue today.
N: Developments certainly come into conflict with problems of the environment and
ecology. But development is also an important necessity. How do you
visualize this sort of a situation? What are the solutions or ideas?
W: The legislature of the state of Florida actually was wise at one period of time in
1985 and they adopted something that is called the growth-management law.
The growth-management law makes a great deal of sense. What it basically
says is, "Development should not occur in a hopscotch or leapfrog way. Any
kind of development should occur close in to an urban core and should occur
closest to where the services and facilities are available." So, for example, if
you have a city and there is a whole bunch of undeveloped land in that city, that
undeveloped land should be developed first before a road is extended out to
nowhere for somebody to develop in the country in the middle of nowhere.
That makes a lot of sense because the roads already exist in the urban core, the
fire and police stations are already centrally located. As a matter of fact, if you
play today the game called Sim City 2000, that particular computer game in
which you are the architect of your own city is based on the same premise. You
only get so much money to build your city and yet you have to build a utility plant,
you have to build the fire station, the police station, you have to build a library
and everything else.
So the 1985 growth-management law in its pure form makes a great deal of
sense. However, like all bureaucracies and especially political bureaucracies,
the growth-management law has never been enacted in its pure form in Alachua
County. What happened in Alachua County was that all of a sudden, the people
who owned land all the way the hell out in the middle of nowhere came in and
said, "Oh, but we want that area zoned as blah blah, because otherwise we
cannot build what we want." Well, excuse me, but that is too bad. You need to,
then, buy land in the urban core if that is what you want to build so you can build
that there, because that is where it belongs.
What we have in Alachua County is a lot of leapfrog, hopscotch development that
occurred all over. We have urban city-type development encroaching upon
agricultural areas, farmlands. We have, in the case of Jonesville, a majority of
the county commission in 1988 and 1989 adopting a land-use plan for that area
that makes it another city-type area like the Oaks Mall out on Newberry Road by
1-75, which anyone will agree is an absolute mess. That is what the
growth-management law was trying to prevent another Oaks Mall-Newberry
Road congested mess. That is not what the blueprint for the future of Alachua
County looks like.
N: How do you see this matter of the business interests intervening with the political
hierarchy and trying to get their things done?
W: Well, let me give you an example. It is an established fact that when you group
development around an urban core, close together, that is cheaper for taxpayers
than if you spread development out at all four corners of a square. Since more
people live, work, shop in the urban-core area, public transportation is more
viable. Not only is it economically more viable, but people use it and therefore
use their cars less. There is less air pollution because there is less automobile
and other vehicular traffic. Our local chamber of commerce does not support, or
has not supported in the past, public transportation.
As a matter of fact, in 1987 and 1988, there was a giant argument about our
transportation plan and what percentage of our transportation plan was going to
be bicycle traffic and what percentage of our transportation plan was going to be
pedestrian traffic. Because, again, if you group all of your development in an
urban core, in a central city, people can walk rather than use their cars. In this
Chambergate transcript you will see where the Chamber of Commerce at the
time, at least their executive board, wanted to stack our transportation
committees with people who supported automobile traffic.
I do not know that there is a way to resolve business and general community
interests because they are two very different things. The public at large has
interests that are different from the very narrow, special interests of, for example,
a chamber of commerce. But I think the two can work together. I think it has to
do with a level of education and a willingness to share. In the past it has been
very evident that the movers and shakers in town, especially the Chamber of
Commerce elite, have not been interested in listening to another point of view.
They have not been interested in sharing what they consider to be their power.
Thus the community stagnated for a period of time.
As is always true, everything was blamed on those people who were called
environmentalists. "Oh, environmentalists are the reason no businesses come
to town. Oh, environmentalists are the reason our economic conditions are the
way they are," which always has seemed to me to be silly because we do not
print money here, and people who have the label "environmentalist" ascribed to
them are usually concerned about larger issues like the water that everyone
drinks and the air that everyone breathes. You know, in this country it is very
clear that for a long time business always has gotten what it wanted, what it
needed. It was a very long time before we had a National Institute of
Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the rights of workers. Labor
unions had to fight for a long time to get better working conditions.
If you have been sitting on top of the pile for a very long time always getting
everything your own way, the idea of sharing that with someone else is
anathema to you. The idea of listening to anything other than what you believe
to be true is not something you consider. In the treatment by the establishment
of Commissioner Jim Notestein and myself it is very clear that this community,
this county, was going through a growth period. [It was] growing from a little old
hick-redneck place where politics were conducted behind closed doors by a few
white men, growing toward a community that recognizes and appreciates its
diversity, recognizes and appreciates that there is strength in a number of
different opinions. We are not there yet. It is still evolving. There is still a
tremendous amount of pressure not to disagree, not to have a different opinion,
and not to voice a different opinion.
N: How do you see yourself with such progressive ideas and all?
W: I believe that government is the ultimate customer-service organization. Today,
because our country has turned very much to a service industry rather than a
manufacturing industry, there is not but maybe the difference of a dime between
your product and mine. What each of us needs to do is cultivate customer
service so that we treat our customer with courtesy, you know, that smile, "We
are glad you are here."
N: Yes, etiquette [laughter].
W: We make our customers feel wanted because word of mouth is what is going to
attract more market share. Unfortunately, government appears to me to be at
least this county government last as far as customer service. I have talked for
many years about the fact that we need to start looking at our taxpayers, our
constituents, as customers because they are customers of Alachua County
government. Alachua County government does not manufacture a product, we
provide services, and our taxpayers are the customers of those services.
Unfortunately, not all commissioners and top management share that belief.
You know, you and I may disagree on the bottom line, the need for a regulation
or the amount of regulation, but regardless, when you call this office, when you
call a staff person, we should say, "A citizen is the most important person in our
business. You are why we are here. We work for you. Hi, what can we do for
A citizen is passed around from bureaucrat to bureaucrat. Frequently, the
questions they have are not answered, phone calls are never returned, and
people just give up. I do not believe that government ever will stop on a dime
and turn around. Government never will move that quickly, but we can certainly
take on a different attitude, and that is one of appreciation for the people whom
we ultimately represent. But a lot of that has to do with the structure of
government. There are five county commissioners elected at large in Alachua
County. While each commissioner is required to reside in a separate, distinct
district of the county, all people in Alachua County vote on electing each
Also, in Alachua County, we have a county-manager form of government and we
have an administrative code that lays out all of the duties and responsibilities.
The duty and responsibility of the county commission is to set policy; the
responsibility of the county manager has to do with operating all county
departments. Also, in Alachua County, we have a number of what are called
constitutional officers. Those are people separately elected by the public who
do not report to the county commission. Those people are the state attorney,
the public defender, all of our judges, the tax collector, the property appraiser, the
sheriff, the clerk of the court, and the supervisor of elections. So we have a
The problem arises with county government, however, because by law in our
administrative code, the county commissioners are prevented from directing any
staff but the county manager. We can only can questions of other staff people
from the county. So what it boils down to is, if three commissioners think the
way the county manager runs the government is hunky dory, and he is doing a
great job, then, regardless of how bad it might be, other Alachua County
commissioners cannot change that. That is a point of which most people out
there in the county are not aware. They do not understand that it requires three
commissioners to hire and fire the county manager. They do not understand
that it requires three commissioners to direct the county manager to do anything.
So, if county commissioners do not take any action, the manager can do
whatever he wants. Since he is not elected by the people, he can create
whatever power base he wants and it is totally hidden from the public.
N: What measures have you taken to create awareness among the citizens of the
community that [promotes your beliefs] but does not jeopardize economic
development of the city and the county at large?
W: Over the years there are a number of things that Commissioner Jim Notestein
and myself have suggested. There seems to be between a one and one-half to
three-year time lag between something that was first suggested and when
something actually is implemented. I always have thought that that time lag is
necessary because there are so many bureaucrats running around here with
giant egos. They want to believe it is their idea, not something somebody
suggested years ago. Recycling is a good one; composting is another. Jim
Notestein first suggested that in 1984 when he was first elected. Now it is all the
rage, shall we say. It is common. Everybody does it. But in 1988 when he
was [running] for reelection, people talked about him as wanting to bomb us back
into the Stone Age: "He really belongs under a compost pile. He has
pie-in-the-sky ideals." So it seems that only when there is a crisis that affects
everyone everyone has a problem with the air we breathe, everyone when they
turn on the tap has contaminated water do people then sit up and say, "Oh,
well gee, maybe we do need some more environmental regulation."
I can remember when Alachua County was considering a hazardous materials
management code, which was another very big environmental issue. Many of
the businesses and chemical companies in town fought it tooth and nail, and it
took five years to get a hazardous materials management code adopted. And I
did not vote for it, because all of the public protections in the hazardous materials
management code, as it originally was, had been withdrawn or deleted or
watered down so that it was no protection for the public, but it was protection for
industry. The hazardous materials management code is quite weak. It is not as
strong as necessary. Whenever business has said, "Oh, well we can police
ourselves. Are you saying we are a bad neighbor? Blah, blah, blah," the
response is very simple.
If we had had these regulations a long time ago, we would not have superfund
toxic waste sites all over the country. If we had had these regulations a long
time ago, we would not have areas in communities in this county as well as
throughout the United States that are no longer habitable. It is very clear that for
a long time business did whatever business needed to do so that the business
could save money. That has hurt and killed a lot of people. It continues to this
day. There are a lot of very forthright businesses. There are a lot of industries
that are moving to change, for example, their manufacturing processes so that
they do not generate hazardous waste, or they are changing their processes up
front so they can use their waste material in their manufacturing process. There
are other businesses that get away with whatever they can.
N: To what degree does government protect the interest of the people with water
and air at the state, county, and city levels?
W: Basically, it is very simple. The federal government brings forth general
standards, and within those general standards states can [choose to] adopt more
stringent measures. At the state level, the state adopts general, environmental
standards for the entire state, and either allows or does not allow local
governments to adopt more stringent measures. In the case of the county
commission, we have an environmental protection department that is a general
fund department. That means it is paid for out of the property taxes of everyone,
whether you live in the city or you live in the unincorporated area of the county.
That is because water knows no boundaries, air knows no municipal boundaries.
I suppose if the city had a large number of industries or if the citizens requested
it, a city also could adopt its own environmental protection department and its
own standards as well. There are some large cities in the state of Florida that
At every step along the way, whether it is federal, state, or local government,
there is a conundrum of high-paid lobbyists whose job it is to represent their
business or industry [and] to make sure there are no more regulations their
business or industry has to follow. There are less citizens at each step along
the way because most normal people have a job. They go to work, they have to
pick up their kids from day care in the evening, they make dinner, they spend
time with their children doing homework, and they get up the next day and do the
same thing. Their job is not to lobby Congress, or the state legislature, or the
county commission, and that is, I think, where we run into problems. The
environment, it seems, always will be expendable. When there are good
economic times, then we will protect the environment. When there are
downturns in the economy, that is the time we need to concentrate on business
development, regardless of the environment. At least that is the way it appears
here, when, in fact, that appears to me to be very shortsighted.
In the state of Florida, as well as in this county, we are trying to attract tourists to
come and spend their money and then leave. If we have contaminated lakes, if
the state of Florida has contaminated beaches, if you cannot be assured that the
city in which you are staying has clean water, tourists will not come. Businesses
will not move here. But that is always the way it has been. It requires, not
apathetic citizens, but citizens who really are concerned, who watch over
government to make sure that each elected official, as well as the government as
a whole, is doing what it was supposed to do.
I think it is an evolutionary cycle, and it appears that there is a lot of apathy out
there right now, and I know why that is. It is because people come to
government and they ask for help and they get kicked in the teeth or they are
ignored. After a while they are tired of getting kicked in the teeth or tired of
being ignored, and they do not think anyone in government can help. It is
unfortunate, but the recent city election is a good example. Only 16 percent of
the registered voters in the city of Gainesville turned out to vote for city
commissioners. That is a real shame.
N: How is it that you really can inculcate into the community that city or county
government is interested in the welfare of people and their day-to-day life?
W: First of all, I think you have to have commissioners, elected public officials, who
really feel that way. I do not believe that in the past all county commissioners
who have been elected have really felt like it is the business of the public we are
doing. As a matter of fact, there have been some workshops and meetings
where I have been absolutely floored at some of the things some commissioners
say. If there was a media person in the room or if the public was in the room,
they would be roundly attacked for the things they say.
Most of the time government is not conducted in a way that encourages people
to participate. Last year when I was Chair of the commission I authored a
handbook on policies of the county commission, which included policies on how
we conduct our meetings. I remember in 1986 when I was elected, I asked for a
copy of the rules and then-chair Turlington said, "Well, darlin', there are no rules.
They are my rules." And I said, "But how does a member of the public
understand how this government operates?" He said, "They are the chair rules;
whatever I want to do, goes. Whatever I say, goes." That is the politics of old,
business as usual, and for a city with a university community, we should expect
So last year I did some research and put together a handbook of those kinds of
rules so that anyone who was interested in coming to participate in government,
who just had a vicarious interest, or who was going to campaign for election,
would know how this county government operates. But, also, if you do not have
it written down, it is hard to hold you accountable to your rules. Anything can
One of the other things I have attempted to do both last year as Chair and during
my entire eight-year term has to do with public information. You see, in the state
of Florida we have something called the Sunshine [Law], an open public-records
law, which basically means that the legislature has said that everything that
governments do is open and can be seen and copied by anyone, unless the
legislature has specifically exempted that document. For example, the home
addresses of police officers.
N: A certain strategy.
W: Since this county government does not have an attitude of customer service,
frequently what happens is that people have difficulty obtaining public
information, information that is already ours. As a matter of fact, as a
commissioner, I have had to get the attorney to go down to the manager's office
to tell him that something is public information and I can have it right now, which
is outrageous. But I have made it my business over the past eight years to
assist citizens with obtaining public information and to correspond frequently with
the attorney general's office in Tallahassee.
If there is one thing I have done, one effect that I have had in the past eight
years, I believe that it has been in showing the public that there is another way to
conduct business, that you can have a different opinion, that someone has a
different opinion, that it is not necessary to continue raising taxes, that we can
look for ways to save. We can tighten our belt just like other families
everywhere else do. It is possible if we read and research and find out what
other communities are doing, what other successful programs they have
implemented, that we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We can implement
their successful programs here.
But I must admit, that has been very difficult, because county government, at
times, seems to be comprised of people who come in once in a while for
meetings but do not do any reading. They do not do any research, they do not
ask any questions, they just rubber stamp what the county manager brings to us.
I must admit that what the county manager brings to us, very frequently, is not
thorough. It has not been well researched. My father always taught me to ask
the questions that an ideal academician would ask. Where is the data? Who
collected it? When was it collected? What are the variables? We do not get
that kind of information provided to us here unless we do that research
ourselves. That is why you see two large bookcases full of books and four
four-drawer filing cabinets in my office, which are full of all kinds of material.
County government is also very interesting because if you are not a member of
the ruling majority, if you are not a member of the "in-crowd", you do not get the
same information everyone else gets. You are not always spoken to in the
same way that everyone else is spoken to, and you do not always get your
telephone messages. But I do believe the public knows more today about the
way county government affects them than they knew before I was elected in
1986. I make no bones about it my job is to rock the boat. You see, I did not
come into county government to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers. I
came into county government really differently than anyone else has and that
was because of the tragedy of gasoline-contaminated water. I knew county
government was not doing its job, at least for my son and the other people in the
neighborhood. I vowed to make a difference. I am proud that when people call
me and have a complaint for example, their road has not been graded or they
have not been able to get information from the department or, heavens, a county
official hung up the telephone on them that I have been able to assist them in
getting that job done.
I recall last summer when a couple who lived in a nice subdivision west of town
called me. [They were] extremely upset because the county public works crew,
the road crew, had gone down to clear an easement and cut down all of their
shrubs that they had spent ten years growing. When I filed that complaint, the
response I received was, "Yes, it was our fault." And I wrote back and said,
"Well, a customer service organization would not stop there. A customer service
organization would go out, talk with the property owners about what they want to
put back there, and a true customer service organization would go out and plant
the bushes and make sure that that never happens again." After a period of
time, we finally got that done.
That is an environmental issue, because a public works crew is usually interested
in cutting down all the limbs and the trees hanging over the road; they do not
stop to think that when they mow the median they are mowing wildflowers that
attract Monarch butterflies from Mexico. So those kinds of environmental
sensitivities are something which I believe is now here that did not used to be
here. It is by no means ideal, I do not believe it is even acceptable yet, but it is a
N: People tend to retain the status quo. How do you face this particular changing
scenario? What do you plan to do in the near future to upgrade, to better things,
so the community can harmoniously lead their life?
W: Democracy is a two-way street. It only works when the public is involved.
When the public is not involved, when there are very few voters who turn out for
an election, or when the voters do not scrutinize what government is doing, that
is usually when government runs haywire. I believe government is in the
business of protecting government at least this bureaucracy is. I must digress
for a moment, however, and say that there are some wonderfully competent,
capable, and caring people who work for Alachua County government.
However, they are not always in the top administrative or management positions.
So when I talk about bureaucracy I want to make clear that I am talking about
my experiences with top management.
You mentioned the status quo. I think the way to answer that question is to
explain that I had a very different reason for getting involved in county
government than most other commissioners, I would say 90 percent of other
elected officials. Because of that I viewed my job as very different than other
commissioners. We are in the business of making public policy, that is true;
however, we are each elected individually. We are not elected as a team and I
have never believed it was my job to be a team player, to rubber stamp, to agree
with the majority. I always have rocked the boat. I always have offered another
opinion, and I have been very vocal and very outspoken, frequently, in doing so.
It has been very clear that there is an "in-group" that always has run county
government. I should also tell you that I am trained as a psychologist.
Therefore, I viewed my job differently, as not only to represent all the people and
set public policy, but also to be a watchdog and to fight as much as possible from
within the system to change the system. The way I have done that is to make
very public what I believe is going on in county government and what I believe
should be happening instead. In that way, I suppose you could say my job has
primarily been to educate the public in the hopes that the voters would elect
people of a different conscience.
N: A public conscience.
W: That has happened to some extent, but as I said earlier, it is an evolving process.
It only works when the public stays involved and stays aware. It also is
hampered since we only have one large newspaper in town and it is a paper that,
I believe, chooses to print one philosophy not necessarily the facts as the news
happens. It is very clearly a paper which tries to persuade the public in one
particular direction and that is the real estate, development, business direction.
But I have been a watchdog for eight years. I have attempted to be the
conscience of the public on this commission, to remind the commissioners that
there are other people out there in the world besides people like themselves, and
also to engage more people in the actual workings of county government. To
that extent, I believe I have been successful because over the past eight years
more people have gotten involved in county government than ever before. It
may be because I have been very vocal in representing minority views. It could
be because I have simply dared to offer another opinion.
I believe there is a very important place on an elected public body for a person
who chooses the role as watchdog. Because if we do not have a watchdog,
there is no one to speak for the environment, there is no one to speak for social
justice, and, indeed, my experience has shown that one voice can make a
difference. When I first came to this commission in 1985 about the
contaminated water and was turned down flat and was told that these people did
not even care (except for one, Jim Notestein), I was deeply concerned about the
future of Alachua County. I certainly did not want it to smell like it does when
you get near Palatka. Since then I have done a great deal of research and
learned that the smell is only part of it, that actually the constituents in the air that
are breathed may have had an effect on the babies born in that area. So I
guess to answer your very general question, the environment needs a watchdog
who can work from within, to tell the public immediately what is happening, what
they should be concerned about, to expose the work that some governments
(like cockroaches) would prefer to do in the dark, and to be there to engage the
public. Without that, the things that are of less interest to those people like
chambers of commerce will never be addressed. They will never be considered.
They will never be acted upon.
N: The personal issue of your son is really a very important issue, I certainly feel.
Can you please give some information on your child?
W: In 1985, 1986, and 1987, during our lawsuit, we had a number of studies done on
all of the people involved in the lawsuit and we also had some reports prepared
for us. [My son] is no longer exposed on a regular basis to any of this gasoline
contamination. My son, for some time, has not shown any of the kinds of acute
symptoms that he once did like skin rashes, stomach upset, low-grade fever, and
flu-like symptoms which he exhibited for a long time. He no longer shows those
acute affects; however, the real problem for anybody exposed to any kind of
contamination, particularly gasoline contamination, is the long-term effects that
may occur from the chronic long-term exposure. My son has a very thorough
blood test every year to determine if there are any minor changes in any of his
bodily functions, any of his internal organs.
N: What is his name and what is he studying now?
W: My son's name is Justin, and he is fourteen and one-half. He is a high school
student, doing very well. As I began to say, the concern is always the long-term
exposure, the effects of that, what that might potentially be. There might be
nothing, but he may also run the risk of developing certain kinds of chronic and
debilitating diseases that will obviously affect his quality of life. He also runs the
risk of developing certain forms of cancer because of the exposure to the
chemical constituents in gasoline. Unfortunately, we will not know that until later
in his life. That is the same for the other people who were exposed.
Unfortunately, the problem, at least for elected public officials, is that most
politicians are only concerned about getting reelected in three or four years. So
most politicians do not look further than that period of time which always has
been why we have not had long-term kinds of regulations in place.
N: Politicians have to become more like statesmen. I think that would certainly help
the nation to grow, the community to grow.
W: Well, I am not a politician. I am a very bad politician, let us put it that way. I
consider myself a public servant. In line with that, this will be my last term in
office, November of 1994, because I believe the framers of our constitution
created it in such a way so that everyone would have an opportunity to
participate in our government. I believe in a two-term consecutive limit, so I will
be leaving office after this. I will not, however, be leaving public service. I will
continue to be involved closely with county government because I have learned
that, just because government does something, it does not mean it is right,
especially regarding the environment. Frequently it requires a group of people
to stand up and challenge what government has done in order for government to
do what is right.
N: Finally, do you want to add anything about the environment of county
government or your personal views about various public issues, maybe in a brief
W: There is deciding what we do with our garbage and trash, whether it is the
location of another landfill, whether it is protecting our ground water, whether it is
regulating business and industry so that signs do not visually clutter our
environment and pollute our scenery. Government always can take a much
larger role. Unfortunately, whether it is our visual environment or our natural
environment, it appears that that which we take for granted the air we breathe
and the water we drink is always expendable. Unless citizens become very
closely involved and scrutinize the actions of government, those things we take
for granted never will be properly protected. As I said, government is a two-way
street and it requires that citizens be very active, be very aware. When Ralph
Nader [1934-, American lawyer, author, founder of the consumer rights
movement in the US] was here several years ago he said, "It is unfortunate, but
people pay more attention when they sweep their sidewalk or their front porch
than they do to polishing their citizenship skills." We all should make that a way
N: Thank you, Penny Wheat, for sharing your valuable time.
W: Thank you very much, John.