PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A city council in turmoil, issues with race relations and people frustrated with the system. All of these are serious problems facing Portsmouth.
A year ago, Lydia Pettis-Patton was brought in as city manager with hopes of fixing some of those issues. Are things better? WAVY’s Andy Fox sat down with Dr. Patton, who spoke only to 10 On Your Side.
Dr. Patton was hired partly because she has a steady hand, and a working knowledge of Portsmouth. She has survived by “staying in her own lane.” What does she mean by that?
The date was August 28, 2015. Lydia Patton wore her trademark hat, walked in to the I.C. Norcom High School auditorium to take the oath of office, becoming Portsmouth’s first female city manager.
10 On Your Side had the first exclusive interview with her on December 7, 2015. Thursday marked Dr. Patton’s 365th day in office. Her staff gave her a shirt marking the occasion with the number 525,600, which is what 365 days is in minutes. Everyday, she changes the number on the stick-ems on her lamp. On Thursday, it read 365.
When Dr. Patton took office, there were 11 department head openings. Directors were fleeing the city. A year ago, that was a big issue, but not now. Today, there are no openings, and seven of the 11 she filled are with women like Economic Director Malory Butler. Women also lead the Behavioral Healthcare, Social Services, Human Resources, Chief Financial Officer and Public Utilities departments. Then there is Police Chief Tonya Chapman.
“You have to have experience and background for the work you are doing. Women today and always through time have had the ability to do excellent work,” Dr. Patton said.
Dr. Patton calls her city the ‘New Portsmouth,’ where she says new apartment buildings — like Harbor Vista, Sterling King Apartments I and Sterling King Apartments II — will be attracting more people. There’s a new small craft distillery going in at Montgomery Square. All these alone are in the downtown area.
That’s the good news.
10 On Your Side also asked Dr. Patton about the bad news that many perceive racial and political divides in Portsmouth.
“I do not think there is a racial divide,” she replied.
Andy Fox followed up and asked, “So are all these people who think this wrong with their perceptions?”
Dr. Patton answered, “I cannot speak about other’s perceptions.”
Dr. Patton understandably and absolutely does not want to venture into judging her bosses, which are the Portsmouth City Council members who critics argue are the ones who are creating the angst in the city.
“I can’t get involved in that,” Dr. Patton said. “I just can’t.”
It’s tough to talk about your bosses. What about the distractions of council members fining each other, going to court, suing each other, taxpayers on the hook for over $60,000 in legal fees? 10 On Your Side asked her about this, and she answered: “I know what you are doing, and you are going to get the same answer… I am not going to answer that.”
Dr. Patton then followed up with animation in her speech, direct and forceful, “I serve at the pleasure of the council. I have no opinion, and that is serious, and that is the truth. I don’t get involved in that discussion, and I am here to do the day to day work in serving these citizens. When you know your lane, you stay in it.”
As an aside and under her breath, Dr. Patton added, “And some people don’t know their lanes.”
A little known fact about Dr. Patton: After work most nights, she goes to I.C. Norcom High School, where she is a motivational coach for the Greyhounds Football Team.
“You have got to give your all with everything you do. Everything!” she said. “My work here, I give it my all. When I leave here at night, there is nothing that is left on the table. That is no ‘should’ve,’ ‘could’ve,’ ‘would’ve.’ You got to give it your all.”
Dr. Patton is now working with a second generation of students at I.C. Norcom High School. Andy Fox asked her what she says to motivate the students she is inspiring. She was ready with this three-point answer: “First, you have to be disciplined. Second, you have to understand our youth must listen, and listen when people are trying to give them guidance, so they are able to segue-way the lessons of life, and not fall over in it. If I’m telling you where the rocks are in the water, you have to listen. Third, you must have determination, you have to want to achieve something in this life, and it has to start with you.”
One year after walking in the office, Andy asked her to grade her work. Her answer: “I will let the people decide. I don’t brag, let other people talk.”