PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Changes Portsmouth City Council were hoping to make to their City Charter won’t be happening this year, after a Virginia Beach state delegate rallied Republicans to kill the bills.
The two pieces of legislation would have made it harder for citizens to remove council members from office. Both were unanimously supported by a City Council that often doesn’t ever usually agree on much at all.
However in the waning days of the 2022 General Assembly session, political battles are in full swing and in this case, the players are familiar foes.
Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means localities have authority to the extent the General Assembly has approved. In other words, when local governments wants to change something in their charter documents, they must request a state lawmaker propose the change, and help it win approval in both chambers.
Last year, Portsmouth City Council made requests to change parts of its charter that had to do with the process of recalling council members and penalties for council members who interfere with city employees.
Specifically, Councilman Mark Whitaker, who brought forward both proposals, wanted to keep “citizens from frivolously bringing issues up against council members.”
SB 58, sponsored by state Sen. Mamie Locke, (D-Hampton), would have done away with a council member’s automatic removal from office if they are criminally convicted of interfering with the job of a city employee. Instead of a misdemeanor charge, the city council member would be publicly censured and fined up to $100 if they direct one of the city manager’s employees to do anything, or request the appointment or removal of a city manager’s employee.
In 2020, citizens brought charges out against Councilwoman Lisa Lucas-Burke after she called for former City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton to fire former Police Chief Angela Greene.
SB 523, sponsored by state Sen. Louise Lucas, (D-Portsmouth), would raise the threshold for triggering a recall election. Instead of petitioners gathering a certain number of signatures as is current code, a council member would have to either be convicted of a misdemeanor or the petitioners would have to specifically state the “neglect of duty, misuse of office or incompetence” of a council member. In both cases a judge would ultimately decide if a recall was warranted.
The last recall election in 2010 for longtime Mayor James Holly cost taxpayers nearly $40,000.
Portsmouth has a long history of messy politics with racial tensions mixed with personal vendettas, leading to many lawsuits and court battles.
Often times, the drama is contained within the city limits. Following the June 2020 destruction of the historic Portsmouth Confederate monument, Virginia Beach attorney-turned-lawmaker Del. Tim Anderson, (R-Virginia Beach) has weighed in.
Anderson, made the motions in the Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday to take both bills and re-refer them back to committees that aren’t scheduled to meet again until 2023.
Anderson, a freshman lawmaker, didn’t provide any explanation on the floor for his re-referral and in one instance refused to take a question from Del. Charniele Herring, (D-Alexandria) when she inquired.
Both passed on nearly party line votes. In the house, Republicans have a two-seat majority.
Following the votes Locke, whose district currently also covers parts of Portsmouth, tweeted: “to all you Republicans who followed Anderson down this rabbit hole, I have a long memory and some of you still have bills outstanding. Just saying.”
On Thursday, Anderson shot back on Facebook.
“Yesterday, two job security Senate bills SB58 and SB523 hit the House brick wall yesterday. And when I say job security – I mean politicians job security. These bills would have made Portsmouth the hardest city in the Commonwealth to recall a local official and took away removal from office as a penalty for political criminal interference from the city charter,” Anderson wrote. “All session the Senate has been killing House bills and bragging about being the brick wall. Now there is offense taken when they taste their own medicine.”
The “brick wall” referenced tweets made by Lucas in this year’s session. Lucas, who is the president pro tempore, often tweeted the phrase when Republican-backed legislation was defeated. Only one of Anderson’s more than 20 bills passed this year.
In an interview, Anderson maintained his opposition to the legislation was not rooted in politics but in policy.
“A request from politicians saying ‘make our jobs more secure,’ didn’t sit right with me and a lot of the people within my caucus,” Anderson said. “There are more things going on in Portsmouth and the citizens are using the tools made available to them in City Council.”
However back in Portsmouth, Lucas-Burke, Lucas’ daughter, doesn’t buy it.
“This is our charter change. This is something we wanted to see,” Lucas Burke said. “We didn’t just go out on a limb and change this because I was impacted. We looked at it because other cities have different languages or varying languages that aren’t as harsh … to get this far and now become a political game, yeah that does upset me.”
Lucas-Burke feels Anderson is out of his lane, being that the voters effected aren’t represented by him.
However, Anderson feels this is exactly his job.
“We weigh in on all city charters,” Anderson said. “I think I would be open to revisiting these bills, if they were subject to citywide referendum.”