Penny Wheat steps down after 16 years on County Commission
Steve Schell
November/December 2004

"impressive for her thirst for relevant information, her insistence on accountability, her enthusiasm for exploring creative approaches to problem solving, and her zeal for involving in public affairs people who have never before felt comfortable, or even welcome, at the courthouse."

Those were the words of the Gainesville Sun, in its August 29, 1986 endorsement of Penny Wheat in her initial bid for a County Commission seat. The Sun recommended Wheat to help with the transition of the commission "into a body of creative, responsive, proactive leaders..." saying that Wheat had "shown a propensity to plunge into a problem with all the fact-gathering instincts of a crack investigator."

"And I've been doing just that, ever since," said Wheat last week when I spoke with her on the occasion of her departure from the commission after serving for a total of 16 years, 2 consecutive terms at a time. Wheat decided not to seek re-election to a third term this year, saying that it was important to step back and remember what it is like to observe county government from a citizen's point of view.

In that first election, Wheat defeated incumbent Commission Chair Jane Adams. Despite - some might say because of - being not as well-funded or as well-connected to business as her opponents, she hasn't lost an election since. And she's done it without another Sun endorsement. Voters recognized her efforts to work for the public's interest and gave her their support in 1990, 1996, and again in 2000.

In view of the County's somewhat shaky financial situation, I asked Wheat what she thought about the possibility of creating separate entities for certain services - for example, a Regional Transit Authority, or a Fire Services District. These entities would then have their own dedicated funding sources and would not have to be funded through the County. "First of all," she said, "these entities would not receive the same scrutiny as they would if they were funded by the County. They would become a new bureaucracy."

Early on, Wheat pointed to impact fees as one way to fund the new infrastructure needed for new development. Less than a year after election to her first term, she drew the ire of home builders because she had the audacity to suggest that discussions of the proposed fees take place entirely in meetings open to the public. She told the Gainesville Sun, "I feel like...whoever is going to be affected should have the opportunity to attend. And not only will the home builders be affected, but all the citizens in Alachua County will be affected." Impact fees are still somewhat of a sore point with Wheat as she leaves office. When I asked what avenues she thought the new County Commission might pursue in light of the failed sales tax initiatives this year, she replied, "Take a look at REAL impact fees."

This year, when the Board began talking about impact fees again, many in the community worried that the commission was "moving too fast." But as Commissioner Rodney Long pointed out, the commission had been talking about impact fees for years.

In that same 1986 editorial, the Sun wrote:

"While other Florida cities and counties adopted impact fees as a means of insuring that new growth would pay for itself, Alachua County commissioners waited. Now, with the county facing a budget crunch, impact fees are still barely in the talking stage."

The recent impact fee compromise enacted by the Commission resulted from some rather unusual partnerships: the Builders Association of North Central Florida, the Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club, the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, Women for Wise Growth, and the Gainesville Alachua County Association of Realtors. Wheat pointed out that since the fees enacted amounted to only 35% of the cost of new development for residential property and 65% for commercial property, the county taxpayers must end up paying for what the impact fees don't cover. For this reason, she and Commission Chair Mike Byerly voted against the compromise.

Wheat spent her first term actively seeking ways to make the county more fiscally responsible and to make county government more open to the general public. She proposed a number of changes to the county budget in order to save several million dollars. The voters liked what they saw, and overwhelmingly re-elected her to a second term. She carried 38 of 46 precincts in that election in which she beat Perry McGriff by more than 5,000 votes, while raising less than half what McGriff raised in campaign donations. Her re-election led to much hand wringing among many local politicians. McGriff's supporters and Wheat's detractors claimed that there was not much difference between the two candidates and that the voters had simply re-elected Wheat because they were familiar with her. Wheat said her re-election showed that voters approved of her positions on various issues and wanted her to continue working to make government more open and efficient while advocating for smart growth and environmental policies. The public, Wheat said shortly after the election, wanted someone "they can trust and who takes a consistent stand on the issues."

Wheat's second term was not without controversy. A few months after the election, the County Commission voted to remove her from the Vice-Chair position after Commissioner Kate Barnes accused her of disrupting meetings, being divisive, and refusing to discuss major issues. Wheat maintained that the board was miffed at her outspokenness and principled stance on the issues. "I have not and will not make a decision - any decision - to make a majority of the County Commission happy," she said. Wheat's tenacity, however, proved to have positive results not only for the Commission, but also for the community at large. Before the end of her second term, she was elected as Chair for the 1992-93 Board and her accomplishments during that time drew praise even from the Commissioners who once thought her unworthy of even the position of Vice Chair. Wheat pushed for the Commission to hold its regular meetings in the evenings in order to facilitate citizen participation, and that change began with the 1993-94 Board. During her year as Chair, the Board adopted new procedural rules and requirements regarding information availability. Her detailed knowledge of parliamentary procedure ensured that meetings ran smoothly and that decisions were made according to the rules.

After taking a term off and attending law school, Wheat decided to run once again in 1996. This time she fought three other Democrats for the chance to run against Republican Tom McKnew, a former Gainesville City Commissioner. The Iguana, in its endorsement of Wheat, praised her "sterling record...on government responsibility, accountability, and the environment." The big issue facing the commission at this time was the proposed Florida Rock cement plant that many citizens feared would have a major negative impact on Alachua County's environment. Wheat consistently maintained that the Commission was failing to adequately address the environmental issues surrounding the plant's special permit request, and remained the only consistent opponent of the permit approval.

In 1999, when the Commission was considering a proposal for impact fees and increased gasoline taxes, Wheat again pointed out that the County would not "have the deficits we have now," if impact fees had been instituted much earlier. She also pressed for an increase in the fees charged for rezoning requests and special-use permits. "Currently, development-related fees do not capture everything that it costs" she said. "Forever in Alachua County the public has subsidized new development through higher property taxes."

During this third term, Wheat also chaired the I-75 Corridor Council. The Council was created as a result of the Highway Beautification and Tourism Promotion Pilot Project established by the Florida Legislature in 1996. The Council was tasked with assisting with planning for physical improvements along I-75 from the Georgia border to Wildwood, to create a program for interchange maintenance, to consider uniform outdoor advertising standards, and to promote alternative advertising methods.

Wheat said she was proud of her role in transforming county government from an organization that was unresponsive to the needs of the citizens, to one that is highly competent and open to public review and comment. She also points to an excellent County website that provides easy public access to county information including agendas, minutes, meeting backup documents, commissioner email, and the comprehensive plan. The County's Poverty Reduction Program is another initiative that Wheat says she is proud to have been a part of. The program was established after the County's Poverty Summit in 1999, and uses Federal grant money to help those most in need. "We can do a lot to reduce poverty by removing obstacles," Wheat said.

Wheat steps down feeling that she made a positive impact on county government operations. Alachua County citizens will remember her attention to detail and her sharp memory that enabled her to quickly recall conversations and decisions from previous terms - both enabling her to keep the County Commission focused on issues that spanned time frames measured in years, rather than weeks or months. I asked Wheat what her plans were for the future, to which she replied, "Public service will always be my number one priority."

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