Bob Wheatley throws his hat in another ring

Commission chairman enters race for District 5 council seat
March 18, 2014
Bob Wheatley of Laurel is running for Sussex County Council. SOURCE SUBMITTED

Bob Wheatley says his nearly 20 years of experience on Sussex County's Planning and Zoning Commission give him a unique perspective on how the county operates.

Now, he wants to parlay that experience to run for the Sussex County Council District 5 seat.

Wheatley, who is known for his common sense and witty approach as the commission's chairman, said he is ready to tackle the policy-making role of county government. “The authority rests with county council; that's where I can help to make real improvement,” he said.

He said planning and zoning commissioners can only apply an ordinance, not pass a new one or set policy, which is the role of council.

“There are a number of issues that need to be addressed before the state and federal governments do it for us,” he said. “A time will come when we can no longer push these issues down the road.”

For example, he said, buffers continue to be a hot-point topic in the county; many residents are demanding stricter regulations to mirror state regulations. “We've been beating this around for two or three years. It's time for us to address this,” he said.

In addition, he said, county officials need to start thinking about the 2018 comprehensive land-use update. “We still haven't addressed many of the ordinances proposed from the last plan,” he said.

He said the county has an opportunity to address the way it approaches economic development. His wife, Julie, recently left the position as the county's director of economic development, which spurred his decision to run for council. He said he would not run while his wife was a county employee.

“It's not just what government does, but economic development should include schools, business, chambers and all levels of government. We need a different model in Sussex County,” he said.

Wheatley said District 5 is the most unique councilmanic district running from the farmlands in western Sussex to the beaches in eastern Sussex. “That's a diversity of people, and I'm used to dealing with that,” he said. “As commission chairman I've had to balance and sometimes referee between competing interests to make sure all points of view are heard.”

Wheatley, 57, said he's learned that it's critical to get everyone's opinion on applications and issues. “That includes the fourth-generation farmer in western Sussex and the couple who has just bought a new beach house,” he said.

He said he's also learned that it's imperative to get as much information as possible before acting, and then to verify that information even though it tends to slow down the process at times.

He said he supports a look at changing county council public hearings to night-time meetings. “We have planning and zoning commission hearings at night and they are better attended than council hearings. We may not need to change the business part of the meeting, just the hearings. This would make the process more accessible to the people,” he said.

Over the past 18 years serving on the commission, Wheatley said, the process has become far less political and the quality of the information being presented is much better. “Our job is all about how the application fits the ordinance,” he said.

Wheatley said politics are not a major factor at the county level of government. “I'm a Democrat in the vein of President Harry Truman, who is a hero to me,” he said. “He was the last regular guy in the the White House. He was all about common sense and finding out what is really going on before making a decision.

“Politics will not change who I am or what I think. I won't be voting with a group; I'll vote what I think is right,” he said.

As the longest serving member of the current planning and zoning commission, Wheatley was first appointed in 1995; his term expires in 2016. He said he would step down if elected.

Wheatley, a commercial Realtor, is a part-time consultant for the Whayland Company and serves as president of the Whayland Group. Last fall he was appointed by Gov. Jack Markell to the state's Association of Professional Engineers.

Wheatley's announcement follows that of Democrat Dagsboro Mayor Brad Connor, who is also running for the District 5 race. Republican Harry Orvin Strickler of Frankford has also filed for the seat held by Laurel Republican Vance Phillips, who said he plans to seek another term.

Party primaries are scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 9; the general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4