Editorial: Portsmouth poised for huge mistake with Meeks hire

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot

We regret to inform you that Portsmouth officials are at it again.

Charged with the important decision to come before the City Council — the hiring of a new city manager — members appear bullishly determined to set aside all reason, and do something so wrong-headed that it defies comprehension.

The council’s consideration of Danny Meeks, former council member and recently defeated candidate for mayor, should have citizens outraged. Meeks cannot claim to meet the minimum qualifications for the job and didn’t apply to serve. Hiring him would be malpractice.

And yet, the council voted 4-3 on Jan. 13 to hire Meeks as manager. Council members Bill Moody, Christopher Woodard Jr., Paul Battle and Vice Mayor De’Andre Barnes voted in favor; Mayor Shannon Glover and council members Lisa Lucas-Burke and Mark Whitaker opposed the move.

Portsmouth has been without a permanent manager since September, when Lydia Pettis Patton resigned after serving five years in that role and 35 with the city. She had planned to retire in December but departed earlier as the turmoil in Portsmouth made her position untenable.

The council was going to discuss Pettis Patton’s job performance at the meeting during which she tendered her resignation, a meeting at which the council also fired City Attorney Solomon Ashby. And it followed shortly after Pettis Patton had placed former Police Chief Angela Greene on administrative leave.

We could rehash the circumstances surrounding Greene’s administrative leave and subsequent firing in November, the controversy over what happened at the Confederate monument in June, but the simple fact is that Portsmouth is a city that needs stable, capable leadership more than ever.

Hiring Meeks would in no way accomplish that. While he served in public office, Meeks cannot claim to have to have academic credentials or work experience to make him a competitive candidate for this position. While the public does not have access to the more than 90 applications for that post, it’s no leap to assume some are far more qualified candidates on paper.

In truth, Meeks’ time on the council wasn’t terribly distinguished. Recall, for instance, that he endorsed an unconstitutional measure prohibiting council members from speaking about discussions held in closed session — only to reverse himself when he was fined by his colleagues for speaking to the media.

Like any CEO, a manager is expected to assembly a team of talented deputies, to delegate responsibilities so those versed in the details of sanitation, law enforcement, social services and other public agencies handle the day-in, day-out duties.

But the manager should also have the training and experience for that role. It helps to have an advanced degree in public administration, or at least experience as a deputy manager or leading a public department. That’s not an exhaustive list of qualifications, but it’s a good place to start.

Say this about Meeks: His desire to serve the public is laudable and deserves appreciation. He has served on the council, campaigned for mayor and seems to have a genuine desire to see Portsmouth become a better place to live and work.

But there is absolutely no way the council could justify putting Meeks in the manager’s post, not when that office desperately needs a talented, experienced administrator to enact bold policy solutions to tackle the city’s many problems.

Portsmouth needs radical change to improve the lives of its residents, facilitate economic growth, reduce violent crime, strengthen public schools, address racial unrest and inequality, and make that city a jewel of Hampton Roads.

There is no reason to believe Meeks can accomplish that, and it’s an affront to citizens — who deserve so much more from City Hall — that members would try to install him as manager. It’s as if they’ve learned nothing in recent years.

The council should abandon this sideshow and get down to business, sifting through the dozens of applications and choosing the type of manager that Portsmouth needs and in whom residents can have confidence.