PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth’s sheriff has filed a lawsuit against the city after City Manager Lydia Pettis-Patton deemed the jail “uninhabitable” with little notice.
Lt. Col. Marvin Waters with the Portsmouth Sheriff’s Office confirmed the injuction was filed Thursday morning. A court hearing was scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday.
This comes after bright orange signs with the word “condemned” in underlined bold letters on top were seen plastered on all the five buildings that make up the Portsmouth Civic Center on Wednesday.
While several of the 1960’s and 70’s era buildings have sat vacant since the new courthouse was built, the city jail, magistrate’s office, city records and city police records, property and evidence units still have offices within the complex.
“I was advised by the city’s building official Doug Smith and City Engineer James Wright that the buildings must be vacated immediately,” Pettis-Patton said in a phone call Wednesday night. “I cannot question the building official when it comes to safety.”
Pettis-Patton first told city council Tuesday night of the determination that the buildings were far past their life cycle. Studies had recently been completed evaluating the structural integrity, environmental safety and mechanical components of the property that sits in the 700 block of Crawford Street.
The condemnation notice reads in part: “…this property is a serious threat to health, life and safety of the occupants/public….this building/dwelling is to remain vacant until occupancy has been approved by the inspector…”
“There are major issues,” Pettis-Patton said.
Yet for Sheriff Michael Moore, the issue is powers in city hall.
I have been advocating for a relocation of the City Jail off the waterfront since taking office. I spoke to both the City Council and the City Manager about the need for the relocation of the City Jail. The report of the City Manager confirms the cities failure to properly maintain the City Jail. The city has a history of neglecting city owned structures; Willet Hall, Police Administration building, Portside, schools our recreation centers and the Pavilion.Sheriff Michael A. Moore
I refuse to play politics with the Deputies, their families, or the people I’m entrusted with housing in the City Jail and the citizens. The economic impact of closing the City Jail would put over 130 Sheriff’s Deputies out of work and 60 plus contractors. The services that our Sheriff’s Office provides to the community will be lost. I have exhausted every effort to encourage the city to be more than an absentee landlord. I will review every legal recourse to address this jail relocation effort.
“It was so surprising,” Moore said Wednesday, referring to the sudden notice to vacate the jail.
While he was aware of the studies occurring on the buildings, Moore said he hadn’t spoken with Pettis-Patton or the city attorney about the issue for several months.
“You’re supposed to come together for the good of the people,” Moore said. “But here, people are doing the opposite.”
Moore said he wanted to know if some of the reports were finished in April, why was this just an issue coming to the forefront now.
Pettis-Patton said Moore knows well the buildings were being band-aided for years.
Moore said, “We would not have people in there if conditions were truly that dangerous.”
Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke said Tuesday’s announcement hit her like a ton of bricks.
“Our jail is now unfit for human life?” she questioned after hearing the city manager’s presentation. “And then we get an email that (the condemnation) is happening today? I’m dumbfounded…citizens aren’t going to be happy with this. Inmates, where they going to go? How many are going to be displaced?”
Several citizens were upset to arrive at the civic center Wednesday evening to find they could not enter the magistrate’s office or the jail.
“How they letting people stay in a building that is unsafe? My baby is in there,” one woman yelled, threatening to sue.
Pettis-Patton explained it is the Sheriff’s job to find places for the inmates. The buildings will continue to be in use while city officials find places to put everyone.
That doesn’t cut it for Lucas-Burke, who wanted details before things got to this point.
“Dr. Patton last I checked she works for us, we don’t work for her. She is supposed to give us information when we ask for it and I asked for (relocation plans) yesterday and I don’t have it,” Lucas-Burke said.
Mayor John Rowe was less surprised about the announcement.
“Current situation is we have to make sure people who have to be in the building for a while or are safe and not in harm’s way,” Rowe said.
Plans have long called for the buildings to be taken down eventually in an effort to move Portsmouth’s government off the waterfront. Since February, the city has been in talks with developer Armada Hoffler to possibly build high rise apartments where city hall and public safety building currently stand next door.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with those talks,” Pettis-Patton said sternly. “This is about safety.”