Portsmouth city manager, city attorney ousted

Portsmouth City Attorney George Willson's city council seat sat empty after he left a closed council meeting, during which he was fired Tuesday, April 14, 2015 (WAVY/Erin Kelly).

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A Portsmouth spokeswoman confirmed city council members fired City Attorney George Willson Tuesday night. During the same meeting, council members voted to move up the resignation of Interim City Manager John Rowe.

A source told WAVY News the decisions came after an executive session with city council. City spokeswoman Dana Woodson said both the termination and resignation were effective immediately. She said Willson’s termination was “not for cause.”

Council was more than 45 minutes late starting the meeting, according to the source, who said there was a lot of tension inside the closed session at Portsmouth City Hall. WAVY.com was told Willson and Rowe gathered their belongings and left council chambers before the meeting ended.

Woodson said Councilman Mark Whitaker motioned for both votes. Council voted 4 to 3 to accept an early resignation from Rowe. Council voted 5 to 2 to terminate Willson’s position as city attorney.

Willson has worked for Portsmouth city government for 35 years and was expected to retire in December. He talked to WAVY News by phone Tuesday night and said he wasn’t surprised by the decision. When asked if he had hard feelings about the decision, he said it was the “nature of the beast” and that when you are appointed, “you are always subject to things like this.”

Rowe was appointed interim city manager in November 2012 and then appointed as city manager in March 2013. This past February, he submitted a letter of resignation to city council, asking to be returned to interim city manager status until a new city manager could be found. According to his resignation letter, Rowe’s last day with the city was supposed to be June 30.

WAVY News left a message with Rowe Jr. to ask about the decision, but was unable to reach him Tuesday night. In a proposed budget last month, he wrote that he reluctantly recommended the city increase the real estate tax by 17 cents.

Councilman Mark Whitaker said Deputy City Attorney Cheran Cordell will replace Willson. Woodson said Brannon Godfrey was named interim city manager. She said both Godfrey and Cordell were given a 10 percent salary increase with their new positions.

WAVY News asked Mayor Kenny Wright about the decision after the council meeting ended. He said the following:

“The city council was extremely concerned about the budget presentation, the 17-cent tax increase that was proposed and the amount of misinformation that’s been put out in the public. The citizens don’t deserve that. We didn’t deserve that. We just thought it was a poor choice,” Wright said.

“I appreciate the manager and his staff and what they’ve presented to us, but we’re not going to increase taxes in the city of Portsmouth 17 cents. You got that? We will not,” Wright said. “There are things that we need to take care of, areas we need to look in our spending and all of those other things before we go to the citizens and ask for an increase.”

When asked if it was necessary for this to happen Tuesday, given that both Rowe and Willson had already provided letters of resignation, Wright replied, “It was a consensus on our council. A majority of the council wanted to make this move right away. It is clearly a business decision. We’ve got roughly a month to put this budget together and ratify it and have it ready for adoption, and so we do not have one hour to waste.”

Councilman Bill Moody did not agree that the city leaders should lose their jobs, especially with Rowe’s upcoming resignation and Willson’s upcoming retirement.

“I thought, since they had indicated what they were going to do, we should let that play out,” Moody said.

Moody admits council was not happy with the proposed 17-cent increase for real estate tax. But he also said the proposal never would have passed.

“We had pretty much sent [Rowe] back to the drawing board,” Moody said. ” … I don’t think, from my perspective, it warranted terminating them.”

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