By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Seven months after Portsmouth City Council made the controversial move to appoint her as City Manager, Tonya Chapman was fired by the panel on January 3.
The Council made its move during its first organizational meeting.
Councilman Bill Moody made a motion near the end of the City Council’s bi-annual reorganizational meeting on Tuesday to terminate Chapman for cause.
Moody said Chapman was “willfully engaging in conduct which is demonstratively injurious to the city monetarily or otherwise.”
The termination was approved by a 5-2 vote with Councilmen De’Andre Barnes and Mark Whitaker voting against it.
“What happened is no surprise to anyone,” Lisa Lucas- Burke told the New Journal and Guide. “She came in wrong and she went out the wrong. I never saw this as a long-term situation. Her seeking to return to city leadership was like someone running back into a burning house.”
Lucas said that several factors prompted Chapman’s ouster. She said Chapman’s firing people for no cause was one factor.
Another was the city launching an investigation into alleged missing city gift cards, “when everybody knew exactly where they were…in her office.”
But this was not the first time Chapman’s status as a city official was begun or ended with controversy.
Two years before she was hired as Portsmouth City Manager, she was fired by a majority-white Portsmouth City Council from the job as the city’s Police Chief.
At that time Black city council members and residents were angered by the move. The white council majority said that rank and file and police union members of the Police Department had lost confidence in Chapman.
She said she had sought to reform the department to create less tension between it and the Black community.
Nevertheless, she was ousted in 2019.
But in June of 2022, after African Americans assumed a majority on the council, Councilmen Dr. Mark Whitaker, Vice Mayor De’Andre Barnes, Paul Battle, and Christopher Woodard as bloc, supported hiring her as Portsmouth City Manager.
As City Manager, Chapman would be over the Portsmouth Police Department, a move many believed was an effort by Whitaker and his supporters to right a wrong done two years earlier.
Opposing City Councilmembers, notably Lisa Lucas-Burke and Mayor Shannon Glover, were angry and executed several efforts to block the move which were futile.
At one point Mayor Glover sought to have Whitaker removed from the council chamber. Opponents of the rehiring of Chapman said that Whitaker and his colleagues who supported her return overstepped their bounds.
Also, many expressed wonder as to why Chapman would opt to return to such a hostile environment. Angel Jones, Chapman’s predecessor as City Manager, was fired less than a year after her appointment in May 2022.
Also, Jones maintained there was no viable reason for her firing, due to her performance evaluation, according to Mayor Glover.
The Mayor and other council members said that Whitaker summoned Jones to his office at the church where he pastors. They alleged Whitaker said if she would not quit, city council would fire her.
Council voted 4-3 in June 2022 to approve Chapman’s $ 200,000-a-year contract, in addition to a $10,000-a-year car allowance.
Additionally, at the time of her swearing in, her contract stated that she would receive a $400,000 severance payment if she were fired without cause before her first year as city manager.
That severance amount now will get cut in half because she was terminated after that date. According to WAVY-TV 10 which obtained an email, Chapman did not ask for the larger severance but rather asked for $200,000 if dismissed with or without cause. The $400,000 severance is more than the package included for the last four city managers combined.
Supporters of Whitaker and other council members who supported the hiring of Chapman as City Manager hoped the severance package would make it harder to fire her.
Relations between Chapman and council members opposing her appointment were tense.
At the same time, a group calling themselves Concerned Citizens launched an effort to recall Whitaker and Vice Mayor Barnes.
But the recall effort, according to its organizers, failed to secure the number of voters’ signatures on petitions to submit to a court to apply for a recall election.
On November 8, Woodard and Battle who lost their reelection bids on the council and two new members were elected.
Thus, apparently, there were enough votes on the council to oust Chapman.
Former Deputy City Manager Mimi Terry, who was fired by Chapman, was appointed interim city manager the same day. She started immediately with a $ 210,000-a-year salary.