Media kicked out of Portsmouth budget meeting

Sheriff Watson, Councilman Moody leaves in protest

WAVY News - PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) -- After announcing Tuesday he wants to cut $1 million from the Portsmouth Sheriff's Office budget, Mayor Kenny Wright kicked local media out of a follow-up meeting with city officials.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, 10 On Your Side was sitting in the sixth-floor conference room of Portsmouth City Hall when Sheriff Bill Watson walked in with a list of things he said the city would lose by cutting his budget. Interim City Manager Branen Godfrey walked in and sat down, and then Mayor Wright arrived and told the media to leave.

Picture: Sheriff Watson's budget list

During Tuesday night's city council work session, Mayor Wright said cutting the sheriff's budget would help the city make up for an $11.7 million budget shortfall.

On Wednesday, the mayor informed Sheriff Watson that a majority of council members had agreed on the proposed cut. Wright said he wanted to meet with the sheriff, the interim city manager and interim chief financial officer Thursday to have the sheriff defend his office's financial needs.

Portsmouth City Council members will vote on the proposed budget next week.

Document: Mayor Wright's letter requesting meeting with Sheriff Watson

The mayor wanted a closed meeting, but Sheriff Watson disagreed. Interim City Attorney Cheran Cordell released this statement:

It is my opinion that the one-on-one meeting of any council member with an individual to discuss city business is not contrary to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that governs public meetings. Specifically, Va. Code section 2.2-3701 defines a meeting as "a body or entity, or as an informal assemblage of (i) as many as three members or (ii) a quorum, if less than three, of the constituent membership, wherever held, with or without minutes being taken, whether or not votes are cast, of any public body."

10 On Your Side's Brandi Cummings asked Mayor Wright why the media was not being allowed in a meeting about how tax dollars are being spent, but he did not respond. Instead, Wright left the conference room and went to his office.

As the mayor walked out, Sheriff Watson said, "If they can't stay, I'm not either." He spoke briefly to 10 On Your Side and then left the building.

Moments later, Mayor Wright returned to the conference room, not saying a word to members of the media questioning him, and closed the conference door behind him. A security guard arrived and stood near the conference room door. He told WAVY News he was told to escort the media out, if anyone "bothered the mayor" during the meeting.

The meeting lasted about an hour. About 45 minutes into the meeting, Councilman Bill Moody also left, citing "philosophical differences" with the mayor. He told 10 On Your Side he believes the media should be allowed inside the meeting. He also said he doesn't support cuts to the sheriff's office budget without going over all the facts.

"I don't think we need to be cutting off the cuff. I think we need to go through reports that we've had three years ago when the courthouse was staffed. I think we need to revisit that with the sheriff's finance people. I think the judges need to be part of that conversation and see what we end up with," Moody said. "But to just pull a number out of the air and say we're going to cut a million or a million and half, I think that might jeopardize security and might not end up with the end result of what we're looking for."

After the meeting ended, Mayor Wright wanted to talk about what was discussed, but didn't want to explain why the media wasn't allowed to hear it.

WAVY: Mayor Wright, can you talk about what happened in the meeting today?

Wright: We discussed the sheriff's budget and some other things with the budget. We're getting ready to close in on those numbers, and it's very important that we nail that number down. Unfortunately, the sheriff didn't want to stay and discuss because he wanted you guys all in the meeting ... I asked you guys to leave and so he left.

WAVY: Why is that? Why weren't we allowed in that meeting?

Wright: We're going to go with the million-dollar cut that we recommended, that council wanted, and then we're going to discuss some other strategies with the other money that we have.

WAVY: But mayor, you didn't answer that question -- why is it that you didn't want us in that meeting?

That's when the left and went to his office.

Reducing funds for the sheriff's office is part of the latest plan for next year's city budget. That plan would reduce the $11.7 million shortfall by about $8.7 million, but would still require a four-cent tax increase.

This proposal comes after other city officials were ousted by city council for proposing a 17-cent tax increase to make up for the budget shortfall. Mayor Wright has publicly opposed a tax increase.

Some of the other options on the table Tuesday included eliminating employee raises for police and fire personnel, implementing a hiring freeze, and reducing library branch hours. Mayor Wright said he thought cutting those departments without cutting the sheriff's office would be unfair.

"I think it's going to be very unfair to these departments to put these cuts in place and [the sheriff has] people stuffed in every room in that courthouse," Wright said Tuesday.

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