Coalition launches recall effort for Prince William County Board Chair Wheeler

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A Prince William County conservation group has expanded its recall effort to include Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler for her connections to the data center industry.

The Coalition to Protect Prince William County announced the beginning of its recall petition for Wheeler during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

The coalition is holding a press conference at 6:30 p.m.

Last month, the coalition announced a recall petition for Gainesville District Supervisor Pete Candland over his involvement with the controversial PW Digital Gateway proposal.

“Citizens refuse to accept ‘cookie jar ethics’ of Wheeler and Candland, who only react when their hand is caught in the cookie jar,” the coalition said in a press release.

Wheeler’s recall is also tied to the digital gateway, with residents saying she stands to gain financially from the project and has not been transparent about her ties to the industry.

Digital Gateway

Last summer, landowners along Pageland Lane submitted a request to change the land designation of their properties in the Comprehensive Plan from agricultural zoning to technology zoning. The request on 2,100 acres could pave the way for 27.6 million square feet of data centers, nearly as much data center space as is currently in use or under construction in neighboring Loudoun County, the world’s largest concentration of such facilities.

Virginia law allows residents to petition the Circuit Court to remove any elected official for four reasons: neglect of duty/misuse of office/incompetence; conviction of certain misdemeanors; conviction of a hate crime; or conviction of certain sexual crimes.

The petition must be signed by registered voters composing at least 10% of the total number of votes cast in the most recent election for the office.

Because Wheeler’s seat is elected countywide, the petition will require significantly more signatures than Candland’s.

Wheeler won a four-way race in 2019 with 55% of the 112,089 votes cast so her petition would need to be signed by at least 11,209 registered voters.

The Candland petition would require at least 1,796 registered voters.

Stock Holdings

Wheeler’s petition charges that she has participated in numerous board votes and closed sessions regarding companies in which she owns stock, thuse constituting malfeasance.

Virginia’s State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act requires certain local government officials to declare their economic interests annually.

The form, a Statement of Economic Interests, is about 25 pages long and asks about several items, including employment, debt, securities, business interests, gifts and meeting payments.

While officials are required to file the forms with the clerk of the local government, the law has a blindspot in oversight. It does not require clerks to inspect the forms for completeness or accuracy. Local commonwealth’s attorneys, who are responsible for investigating and prosecuting violations, are also only able to review the forms if they are notified of a potential violation.

Wheeler has filed three forms during her time in office, one in 2020 applying to her financial interests before taking office, another after her first year and the latest covering her finances at the end of 2021.

The forms do not require officials to list a specific dollar amount for their stock holdings, only a range if the holdings are worth more than $5,000.

The first form indicates Wheeler had stocks in at least six companies tied to data centers or the technology industry totaling between $30,000 and $300,000.

Her most recent filing shows investments in at least 13 companies totaling between $245,000 and $1.5 million, an increased investment ranging from $215,000 to $1.2 million.

The petition says that Wheeler should have been disqualified from several votes under the State and Local Governments Conflict of Interest Act.

“As a result of her actions, Ann Betteridge Wheeler has cast doubt on the legitimacy of votes by the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors,” the petition says.

In Virginia, a recall petition is entirely handled by the local circuit court rather than through a vote. If the petition is submitted and certified, the court would hold a trial before making a decision. A special election would be required to fill out the remaining year of Wheeler’s term.

Under state law, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors cannot appoint a temporary replacement ahead of a special election. It is the only local governing body in Virginia specifically barred by state law from appointing a temporary replacement for a vacancy among its members, with very limited exceptions.

The other seven supervisors show little to no stock investments on their economic interest forms beyond standard retirement plans.

Wheeler’s 2022 filing shows investments in the following companies tied to the industry:

  • Apple Inc. – $50,001 to $250,000

  • Amazon Inc. – $50,001 to $250,000

  • Microsoft Corp. – $50,001 to $250,000

  • General Electric – $5,001 to $50,000

  • Twilio, which creates programs for making and receiving phone calls and text messages – $5,001 to $50,000

  • Advanced Micro Devices Inc., which develops computer processors – $5,001 to $50,000

  • The Blackstone Group Inc., an investment group that has acquired some data companies – $5,001 to $50,000

  • CrowdStrike Holdings Inc., a cybersecurity company – $5,001 to $50,000

  • Generac Holdings Inc., a generator and power company – $5,001 to $50,000

  • Honeywell International Inc., a conglomerate company that includes technology services – $5,001 to $50,000

  • Keysight Technologies Inc., which manufactures electronics test and measurement equipment and software – $5,001 to $50,000

  • Plug Power Inc., a fuel cell manufacturer – $5,001 to $50,000

  • Nvidia Corp., a technology company – $5,001 to $50,000

Political issues

The data center industry has quickly become the center of land-use debates in Prince William County. The issue has centered on a 23-year-old policy to restrict development in about 117,000 acres, or about 52% of its land, to no more than one home for every 10 acres with strict restrictions on the expansion of public sewer lines.

The policies that enacted those protections have been weakened this year through several party-line votes, with Democrats voting together to examine land-use topics countywide rather than only in the designated development area. Wheeler was in the majority on those votes.

Last week, the Prince William County Republican Committee passed a resolution opposing the construction of data centers in rural areas and said it would make the topic a central campaign issue for the board in 2023.

Republican supervisors Jeanine Lawson and Yesli Vega have also voiced their opposition to the PW Digital Gateway, while Democrats have not taken a firm public stance on it.

In November, Candland and his wife were among 19 homeowners in the Catharpin Farm Estates neighborhood who filed a Comprehensive Plan Amendment seeking to change the designation of their property as part of the digital gateway.

Candland’s decision to join the Comprehensive Plan Amendment application means he must recuse himself from votes on any data center proposals along the Pageland Lane corridor.

If Candland had not recused himself, the Republican minority on the board would only need one Democrat to join them in voting against the PW Digital Gateway to keep it from being approved. With his recusal, Republicans need two Democrats on their side.

Prince William County is no stranger to recall efforts, though it’s unclear if a successful recall has occurred locally. In 2017, two petitions were started to recall then-Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart and then-School Board Chair Ryan Sawyers.

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