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After controversies and drama, Portsmouth voters oust two council incumbents

(Courtesy of City of Portsmouth) The firing of Portsmouth’s city manager this spring set off a firestorm. Two incumbents lost their seats as part of the fallout.
(Courtesy of City of Portsmouth) The firing of Portsmouth’s city manager this spring set off a firestorm. Two incumbents lost their seats as part of the fallout.

In May, Portsmouth councilman Bill Moody rolled his chair away from the dais, looked between fellow council members Paul Battle, Chris Woodard and Mark Whitaker and told them:

"Y'all are disgusting and I hope the voters kick both of your asses off this council. You're not worthy of it."

Fast forward to last week, when Battle and Woodard lost their re-election bids during local elections.

The pair, along with Whitaker and vice-mayor De’Andre Barnes, voted to fire former city manager Angel Jones. Whitaker and Barnes were not up for re-election. 

Newly elected council members Vernon Tillage and Mark Hugel, received campaign support from other sitting council members, including Moody, Mayor Shannon Glover and Lisa Lucas-Burke.

Jones was the latest high-ranking city official to be removed after a short tenure in the city. And her removal was a turbulent public affair, like other removals.

That sort of instability is what brought Portsmouth resident Patrice Ward out to the polls on Election Day.

She said she’s tired of council controversy pulling focus from the business of the city.

“I hope this shift does pivot and we’re able to get back on track. There’s so much to do,” Ward said. “There’s the casino coming, and we just celebrated Missy Elliot Street and her coming home and those types of things, which are good things, those are good things for the city to see, but it can’t be so weighed down that our troubles overcloud that. It’s time for us to rise.”

By the time the votes were tallied, Ward’s wish for a shift had been fulfilled.

Two members of the group that voted to fire city manager Jones in May lost their seats last week.

Chris Woodard and Paul Battle will be replaced by Mark Hugel and Vernon Tillage.

Jones had the job for just a year and her firing generated a firestorm.

At several points during the council meeting in May where Jones was fired, councilwoman Lisa Lucas-Burke erupted, shouting at other council members.

“I hope that y’all seeing what’s happening and I hope you make your decision when November comes,” Lucas-Burke said, addressing the crowd in the council chambers. “I’m pissed as a m----r f----r. Yeah, I’ll say it. I’m mad as a m----r f----r. I am, cause I know what’s going on.”

She voted against firing Jones, but the city manager lost her job that night in a 4-3 vote.

The incident sparked lingering controversy. Some organized attempts to recall members of council. Those efforts are ongoing.

Mayor Shannon Glover even tried to take out criminal charges against Barnes and Whitaker. Whitaker made the surprise motion in May to oust the city manager.

Jones said a council member had told her in a private meeting to resign or there were four votes ready to fire her.

In a recently filed wrongful termination lawsuit against the city, Jones alleges that she was fired for not going along with the requests of the four members who ultimately voted to fire her.

In the lawsuit, Jones says in one instance, councilmen Battle and Barnes tried to strong-arm her into firing the city’s new police chief, Renado Prince. 

The suit says they wanted Jones to install a friend of theirs from Portsmouth’s Sheriff’s office instead.

Chapman was in the city manager position for less than a week when she fired Prince.

Prince had been on the job for 10 months. 

Portsmouth is now seeking its fourth police chief in as many years.

A city’s image

Residents know chaos in city leadership mars Portsmouth’s image.

Walter Carter has lived in the city since 1952 and thinks the city’s been pulled backwards in recent years.

“City government needs a whole new outlook as to where they’re going to take this city,” Carter said outside the polls on Election Day. “I attend the council meetings and I see what’s going on and a whole lot is going on on our city council that shouldn’t be going on at all, and I’m voting in that direction.”

Take, for instance, the revolving door of police chiefs and city managers.

The same council members who voted to get rid of Jones in May voted to hire the city’s former police chief Tonya Chapman as city manager the next month. She’s been in the job since June.

Chapman says she was forced to resign in 2019 after three controversy-filled years because she was challenging racism within the department.

Then, Chief Angela Greene led the department for less than 18 months until she was fired in November 2020. 

Greene was embroiled in a separate controversy after she criminally charged state Sen. Lousie Lucas, members of the local branch of the NAACP and several others with crimes related to a protest that brought down Portsmouth’s Confederate statues in 2020.

Lucas is Portsmouth’s premier political leader, currently the state’s most powerful elected Democrat and the mother of councilwoman Lucas-Burke. Lucas contended the charges were political.

Greene was fired the same day the charges against Lucas and the others were dropped.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify the status of the recall efforts against Mark Whitaker and De'Andre Barnes.

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

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