Emails detail what mayor says led to departures of Portsmouth City Manager and City Attorney

Posted at 2:58 PM, Sep 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-09 17:08:49-04

PORTSMOUTH, Va. - Last week was the first time Mayor John Rowe learned the city had retained an outside law firm during a 2019 FBI investigation into the police department.

"That's not acceptable at all. It makes you feel like a mushroom where you're growing in the dark," he told News 3.

A Virginian Pilot reporter had requested comment on a story detailing allegations of racism within the city's police department.

Mayor Rowe asked to see how the City Manager's office was going to respond. In doing so, he learned Hunton Andrews Kurth had been retained in 2019 when the FBI was probing the police department. He says previously that information was not disclosed.

In an email last Friday to City Manager Dr. Lydia Pettis Patton and City Attorney Solomon Ashby, Mayor Rowe called their actions "unacceptable."

"An FBI investigation is a serious matter, and you do not have the right to not inform City Council that the 'city' has retained outside counsel in this matter. It is not your right to assume that City Council does not need to know this information. You are not 'the city,'" Mayor Rowe wrote to the two, adding the city council would be discussing the issue at their next meeting.

Late Monday night, Ashby wrote his own email to city council with a legal opinion, suggesting city council members could face criminal liability if they took disciplinary measures against Dr. Patton.

"I implore you to resist any inclination to act in a manner that may be in violation of the law or in a manner that would be in furtherance of a violation of the law," Ashby wrote.

Portsmouth City Code includes a provision saying city council members could face misdemeanor charges if they direct the city manager to fire or appoint someone who works for the city manager. The City Code also states the city manager "shall serve at the pleasure of city council."

"I've never seen an opinion like that. The City Manager is very much an at-will employee," said Rowe, who shared the emails with News 3 on Wednesday.

Rowe called a special meeting on Tuesday to review the performance of Patton and Ashby. Prior to the meeting, Patton resigned. During it, Ashby was fired in a 4-3 vote.

"It was a lack of confidence on getting good legal advice from the City Attorney," said Rowe of the decision to terminate Ashby.

Rowe says he's not sure exactly what work Hunton Andrews Kurth did or how much money was spent, but he plans to find out. "My curiosity will drive me to," he said. "I would bet it wasn't a small sum of money."

The law firm did not respond to questions from News 3.

The departures come during a tumultuous time for the city. Police Chief Angela Greene was put on administrative leave last Friday. With Patton's departure, there have been calls for her to be reinstated. That decision would have to come from the interim City Manager, who did not respond to a request for comment about Greene's status.

Despite the turmoil, Rowe said brighter days remain ahead for the city. "The City of Portsmouth is not going to slip into the southern branch of the Elizabeth River. That's not going to happen," he said. "We have a good staff."

The three council members who voted against firing Ashby or accepting Patton's resignation declined comment Tuesday. Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke did not respond to further questions on Wednesday.