New Mayor in Town: One-On-One with John Rowe

Images: WAVY-TV 10

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Only On 10, Andy Fox takes you behind the scenes of the deteriorating relationship between Portsmouth’s newly elected mayor and his most outspoken critic on city council.

If you go to Portsmouth City Council meetings you’ll see most votes are 6-1. The lone dissenter is usually Councilman Mark Whitaker. He claims Mayor John Rowe lacks social consciousness and credibility.

Back in April 2015, Rowe was fired as city manager. The oust was orchestrated by then-mayor Kenny Wright and Councilman Mark Whitaker. Fast forward to November of last year, Rowe is back, but this time as mayor, defeating Kenny Wright.

Wright is out, but Whitaker remains.

It is in the Portsmouth City Council chambers where the rift between Councilman Mark Whitaker and Mayor John Rowe is clearly seen nearly every council meeting.

On Feb.14, Whitaker said in open session to Rowe, “I know you are trying to cover it up.”

Whitaker accused Rowe of cover ups. Rowe fired back.

“You no longer have the floor, you are out of order.”

“I am not out of order,” Whitaker said.

Apparently he was, because after the exchange, Whitaker didn’t say anything more until the next council meeting. That’s when Whitaker, discussing the termination of three PRHA board members, says, “I am going to speak to it because I am not intimidated by white supremacy nor black inferiority.”

When called about this, one council member said, “Oh, OK. And then I just considered where it was coming from.”

Trying to unite a deeply divided city, Mayor Rowe called for a unity council retreat. Councilman Whitaker boycotted the event.

Councilwoman Lisa Lucas-Burke would have attended, but couldn’t due to a family medical emergency. 10 On Your Side asked her whether she thinks Whitaker is a negative force.

“In this aspect, I do, because that was his opportunity to come together with all of us to set his agenda, and to learn our agenda.”

What is also troubling to Lucas-Burke: Instead of attending the retreat, Whitaker sent WAVY News a letter and nine reasons why Mayor Rowe “lacks the social-consciousness and credibility to lead or participate in providing a progressive vision for the City of Portsmouth.”

Whitaker has refused several requests for an interview, 10 On Your Side’s Andy Fox confronted him at City Hall.

Andy said, “Do you not think Mayor Rowe has the social consciousness to lead the city? Those are powerful words councilman… You didn’t show up at the retreat, and you say he does not have the social consciousness to lead the city, and I am simply asking why you think that?”

At that point, Councilman Whitaker replied, “Do your research as I always encourage you to do.”

He didn’t answer the question.

After the retreat, Rowe sent an “olive branch” letter to Whitaker.

“I was inviting him to meet, so I can hear his concerns, and that he could learn more about me,” Mayor Rowe said.

Whitaker responded with a no. He said, “I have not known you to be a proponent of civil rights, equal rights, social justice, diversity, living wage, and minority contracting.”

This quote mirrors the tone he sent in the first letter. Read Whitaker’s full response here.

Some council members say Whitaker’s letter was negative.

10 On Your Side asked Rowe about these issues, and it turns out in March 2013, then-city manager Rowe — before he got fired by Whitaker — had an ordinance drawn up that Rowe recommended Council approve

It called for appropriating “the funds necessary to conduct a [$200,000] disparity study” on minority contracting.

Another claim Whitaker made in the letter: “Mayor Rowe has not been a supporter of public education.”

Rowe says that is absolutely untrue and at the retreat Whitaker did not attend, education was the first priority.

“We need to draw a line in the sand on this issue. It is intolerable that we only have eight of 19 schools fully accredited.”

Whitaker’s complaints about Rowe continue: “Mayor Rowe has not been a proponent of the living wage as a means of addressing poverty.”

Again, at the retreat, Rowe says, “We decided to create a task force on poverty.”

Whitaker also notes Rowe received retirement pay after he was named full-time city manager in 2012. You can’t receive both at the same time. WAVY News asked Rowe if he improperly received money from retirement while he was a full time employee.

“This is a matter between me and VRS [Virginia Retirement System] and we have a difference of opinion that we are working through.”

On Wednesday, Mayor Rowe moderated a meeting to engage ex-felons telling teens prison is not the place to be.

Convicted felons urge community, businesses to give them a second chance

10 On Your Side asked Whitaker about Councilwoman Lucas-Burke saying he is a negative force and that she said he was “going to just be more of the same old negative as in the past.”

Whitaker answered, “Well, people are entitled to their opinion.”

What is Rowe’s plan moving forward?

“I am going to continue to be respectful [of Mr. Whitaker] and reach out… We want everyone to be included.”

Mayor Rowe says he is reaching out. The question is will Whitaker’s hand be extended on the other end reaching out to Mayor Rowe? That’s to be determined.