Learn the key issues affecting Portsmouth citizens.

Failure to Manage Personnel Costs

After a closed session in April 2015 the City Council demanded the immediate resignation of the City Manager and the City Attorney. As a result, the city paid both men their full salaries for the duration of their contracts and increased the salaries of the Assistant City Manager and Acting City Attorney who assumed their duties on an interim basis. When Council filled these positions it paid $75,000 more each year in retirement benefits to the new hires.

Failure to Conduct City Business in Open Sessions

A veil of secrecy has enveloped Portsmouth’s government. Much of the city’s business is decided behind closed doors without the public’s knowledge or input. This tactic undermines the principle of transparency and erodes the confidence of people in their government. One councilman disclosed in the September 2015 community meeting at Norcom High School, that closed session meetings were needed to “get our minds together so that we will all be heading in the same direction”. The Code of Virginia allows any public body to withhold certain records from public disclosure.” Discussion and records of the following may be discussed in closed sessions:

Personnel records (§ 2.2-3705.1 (1) of the Code of Virginia)

Records subject to attorney-client privilege (§ 2.2-3705.1 (2)) or attorney work product (§ 2.2-3705.1 (3))

Vendor proprietary information (§ 2.2-3705.1 (6))

Records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract, prior to a contract being awarded (§ 2.2-3705.1 (12))

“Getting our heads together so we will all be heading in the same direction” is not allowed in closed sessions by the Code of Virginia.

Failure to Consider Citizen Input

After a closed session on September 12, 2015, City Council voted unanimously to reduce the time each speaker could address Council from five minutes to three minutes. The item was not on the agenda, and citizens were not allowed to speak to the issue before the vote was taken.

Failure of Decorum

Council members bicker, curse, and chide each other in public and behind closed doors. Two members have promoted an effort to recall the Mayor. One stated, after two non-agenda speakers made their presentations that “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity are two of the most dangerous things in the world.”

Yet according to Section V. DECORUM AND ORDER of the Council Rules and Regulations:
No language or conduct detrimental to the function of the meeting shall be permitted. The Presiding Officer shall maintain the dignity of the meeting, preserve decorum and order, and shall call out of order any person violating these rules of order and procedure. Applause shall be permitted only during awards and presentations. During all other agenda items, a speaker may request an expression of consensus, support, or opposition by calling for a show of hands or for members of the audience to silently stand.
No citizen shall be permitted to make personal accusations or attacks against another citizen.
Shouldn’t this include Council members and the Mayor too?

The Presiding Officer shall decide all questions of order, without debate, which shall be subject to appeal to the Council by any member thereof. A question of order takes precedence over the question giving rise to it. The Chief of Police or his designee shall act as Sergeant-At-Arms at all City Council Meetings. The Sergeant-At-Arms shall, under the direction of the Presiding Officer, have charge of the Council Chamber and shall prevent any interruption of the business of the Council by disorder within or without.

Failure to Prioritize Discretionary Spending

During a closed session in August 2015 City Council voted 4-3 to direct the interim City Attorney to seek a court order to relocate the Confederate monument on High Street. The estimated cost of removing and relocating the monument is $112,000. This figure was not budgeted and does not include legal fees certain to arise when the action is challenged in court.

Failure to Replace Non-Productive Auditor

In April 2013, City Council created the city auditor’s position, seeking to ferret out waste, fraud, and abuse and to make the city run more efficiently. The auditor is to report findings directly to the Council. The auditor did not complete a single audit during his first 18 months. By the end of 2015 the auditor completed 2 audits and 2 special projects. His audit plan and tortoise-like progress show he is one year behind in his work. Still, he received raises, now enjoying an annual salary of $95,481 while failing to meet his own deadlines and apparently plagiarizing audit reports from other cities’ auditors in his own reports. Only the City Council can fire him, and its members refused to do so until April 26, 2016, when on a 5-2 vote, it finally did so.

Failure to Obey the Law

One councilman and the Mayor have run afoul of the law. Danny Meeks was charged “with impeding traffic & improperly displaying a license plate” in December 2015. Meeks said “I was appalled at how the police officer reacted,” and the officer “talked to another citizen like he was an animal.” When Channel 13 aired the video from an assisting officer’s body camera we saw the police officer acted appropriately.

On January 12, 2016 Mayor Kenny Wright refused to stop for Sheriff Bill Watson, who intended to issue him a warning about an inspection sticker, 7 months past due. Wright later stopped outside the garage. When the sheriff asked for his license and registration, Wright said, “Sheriff, get away from me.” Wright then drove off, leading the sheriff on a chase through downtown. The Mayor refused to stop 3 times. On January 13, 2016 the Mayor was charged with a felony for eluding law enforcement. By not complying with law enforcement — by showing he believes himself to be above the law — Wright sets a poor example for citizens, weakening the relationship with law enforcement. On March 21, 2016 the felony eluding charge against the mayor was dropped. On April 5, 2016 Danny Meeks pleaded no contest to impeding traffic. The judge said all charges against Mr. Meeks will be dropped if he behaves for six months.

Failure to Curtail New Spending

Portsmouth has purchased property for a recreation center it cannot afford, saddling the city with another expense while reducing its already meager supply of taxable land.

In June 2014, the City Council transferred $3.75 million from the general fund to the capital improvement fund to purchase the Pines Property for a large public sports complex. This project was not recommended in the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, developed in 2012 at a cost of $65,000. By the end of 2015 the city had already spent $5,025,295.34 on the Pines. Over the next three years, the project will cost the city more than $7,000,000. This figure does not include $78,000 in real estate taxes lost each year nor the additional debt incurred by the issuance of bonds for undefined and additional capital improvements, as outlined in the March 2, 2014 Public Work Session. It does include over $853,000 in federal funds each year which could be spent improving the infrastructure of Portsmouth.

The city has spent over $54,600 in legal fees to represent council members for an illegal decision it made about two other council members discussing closed sessions. The Council decided to fine both Bill Moody and Danny Meeks $1500.00 each for making statements it felt were inappropriate about closed session discussions. Bill Moody sued and his lawsuit went before Circuit Judge Catherine Hammond, who ruled the council violated the Freedom of Information Act in the way it fined him, which was in a closed session, All votes must be in front of the public. Bill Moody now wants to settle for $10,000, for the cost of his attorneys’ fees, which would make the total $64,600, not counting the law suit which Danny Meeks is planning. All this money wasted because of an illegal act performed by four council members who now refuse to rescind the regulation.

Failure to Retain Key Staff

Portsmouth lost 12 department heads and upper level managers between April and September, 2015.  The exodus began with the April firing of the City Manager and City Attorney. In quick succession, the chief financial officer departed. The police chief retired. Then the economic development director, who had been on the job for just six months, left. In July, the general services director was forced out. In August, the public utilities director quit. The human resources management director retired, and two deputy city managers resigned. Within days, the director of parks, recreation, and leisure services quit. Additionally the manager of transportation and maritime planning fled for a job out of state.  By November 2015 fifteen top staff had resigned or been fired. These serial departures signal more than mere dysfunction in Portsmouth. They reflect a hostile workplace.

Failure to Prioritize Public Safety

The 2015-2016 budget froze 43 public safety positions and cut roughly $800,000 from the Portsmouth Sheriff’s Office while giving a 2% pay increase to general wage city employees. By December 31, 2015, the police department was operating with 222 of its 264 authorized positions. There were 28 frozen positions and 14 vacancies, even though homicides had risen from 11 in 2014 to 27 in 2015. According to February 2016 vacancy data from the city, there were 16 frozen fire positions and 15 vacant positions. According to February vacancy data from the city, there are 16 frozen fire positions and 15 vacant positions.

Failure to Manage a Looming Budget Crisis

The council relied on a series of short-term solutions to pare millions of dollars from the budget and used one-time funds and a 3 cents real estate tax increase to pay for operations for 2015-2016. The budget shortfall is projected to increase next year, and the next, and the next. Portsmouth is now at 85% of its allowed debt level, meaning per capita debt of citizens is now at $6,831.00. Compare this to Norfolk’s $2,494 per capita, according to Fitch Ratings reports from 2014 and 2015, Virginia Beach’s per capita of $2,290 and Chesapeake’s per capita of $1,713.

Failure to Communicate with Public

The Mayor and the majority of City Council members have declined public comment on issues facing the city since August 2015. To make matters worse, in September 2015 the Council voted 4-2, after yet another closed session, to discipline with penalties of censure and fines of $1,500 any of their colleagues or city staff who break the confidentiality of a closed session. Also the city has enacted an administrative policy that non routine media inquiries must be sent to the communications department and that routine media inquiries must be directed to the appropriate department representative. An employee who violates the policy is subject to disciplinary action. By March 2016 two councilmen had been fined $1500 each and one fireman suspended for talking with the public. To squelch even further the public’s right to know what their government is doing, the city has imposed new fees on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The city has destroyed at least 370 curbside trash cans of documents since July 1, 2015, without submitting certificates of destruction, as required by law. Improperly destroying records costs governments institutional knowledge, denies citizens access to information that helps them hold officials accountable, and may force departments to redo work requiring taxpayers to pay for the same thing again. Councilman Bill Moody offered a blunt and worrisome assessment of the latest transgression: “Portsmouth has declared war on transparency, apparently on all levels.”

Failure of Leadership

The Mayor has demonstrated contempt for anyone who questions his authority or who disagrees with his positions on issues.  He does not respond to media requests to explain or justify his positions. Further, he does not acknowledge “point of order” objections from council members during council meetings.

Failure to Keep Commitments

Two Councilmen have not met their contractual commitments in Portsmouth. Mark Whitaker is manager and trustee of New Bethel Development LLC, which is being sued because it owes $2.9 million to the bank, which includes $160,000 in back real estate taxes since 2009. The property also has a lien against it for cleanup done by the city. That’s another $47,536. The lawsuit alleges “failure to make payments when due,” “failure to pay real estate taxes when due” and “failure to maintain the property in a tenantable condition.”

Danny Meek’s development company, Cradock Properties LLC, is in default on building promised infrastructure at the Cradock High School site, and failing to build five single-family homes by an October 2015 deadline. The entire 200-home project would have brought $650,000 in annual real estate tax revenue to Portsmouth.  Instead now there is only rubble, a demolished Cradock High School, and a much smaller Cradock Recreation Center. The Portsmouth Redevelopment and Housing Authority gave Mr. Meeks a one year extension to complete this project on December 17, 2015. At the time the Housing Authority approved the extension, Meeks owed about $800 in taxes and fees. As of Tuesday, January 26, 2016 at 12:50 p.m., he owed more than $13,000 in taxes and fees, according to Treasurer James Williams. Later that afternoon, before the City Council meeting, Meeks had paid his taxes in full.

Failure to Award School Board Contracts to Lowest Bidder

Virginia law requires government entities to award contracts for services to the lowest qualified and responsible bidder. Based on proposals submitted to Portsmouth Public Schools during the summer of 2015, the lowest bids were not always accepted. Two contracts, one for recycling and a second for floor-care products, did not go to the lowest bidder, and new boilers at I.C. Norcom High School cost approximately $21,000 more than originally expected.

All information gathered from The Virginian Pilot, Currents, WAVY TV,  City of Portsmouth website and Communications Department, City Council meetings, School Board meetings, Portsmouth Public Schools’ Department of Research and Testing, Norfolk Public Schools’ Department of Research and Statistics, and Community meetings.