Portsmouth City Council revokes ordinance that would have authorized a $300,000 audit of pandemic aid

The Portsmouth City Council will no longer pursue a forensic audit into the city’s federal pandemic relief funds and other concerns raised by former City Manger Tonya Chapman before her departure.

A request from Councilman Mark Whitaker for a report on the status of the audit toward the end of Tuesday’s meeting evolved into an agenda item being added to rescind the ordinance authorizing the audit. After a divisive discussion marred by jabs among council members and a reprimand from the public for their infighting, the ordinance was revoked on a 5-2 vote, with Councilman De’Andre Barnes and Whitaker voting against.

In December, the council authorized the transfer of $300,000 from the budget for an audit of the city’s pandemic relief aid and how it was distributed, general fund spending and public utilities transactions. The 6-1 decision followed allegations from Chapman that the city’s federal pandemic aid might have been mismanaged under her predecessor, Angel Jones and Mimi Terry, now the interim city manager. Terry was previously the chief financial officer and said she was let go under Chapman.

Chapman said in November that an internal investigation with her staff found about $80,000 out of more than $3 million in gift cards earmarked for direct relief to seniors and other residents struggling from the impacts of the pandemic weren’t securely stored or might not have been properly accounted for or distributed.

In January, an accountant with the city said another internal investigation revealed that all gift cards had been accounted for and no money was missing. It didn’t cost anything to conduct, and it included a review of invoices, delivery tickets, packing slips, program participant applications and participant sign-in sheets.

Terry reiterated Tuesday there are no issues with the gift cards. She added that the official scope of work was never submitted to Hyder Consulting Group, which Chapman sought for the audit.

“What I am asking council to do now is to consider that ordinance since we’re up and not waste the taxpayers’ dollars, allow me to do my job, allow me to focus on the things that will move the city forward, allow me to not have to look back for something that was not an issue or an allegation — a true allegation — to start with,” she said.

Whitaker criticized council members for reducing the audit to only the gift card issue, adding that part of it was to investigate people not being billed by the city for water.

“I haven’t seen that reported to the city,” he said, also quipping to the mayor that he was attempting to cover up the information.

Several Portsmouth residents chastised council members during a public comment period for the infighting and called the audit a waste a taxpayers’ money.

“What this really is is a bunch of spinning. Y’all are wasting time,” Sergio Neal said. “Do you think somebody that has to bury their child wants to see y’all waste $300,000?”

Mark Geduldig-Yatrofsky called the audit a “stalking horse” and an attempt to “cast dispersions” on the previous city manager and staff.

Councilman Bill Moody concurred the audit was a waste of money, adding that some of his colleagues didn’t want to accept Terry’s information.

But Portsmouth resident Melissa Williams thanked Whitaker for trying to provide transparency to the community.

“I think that it is absolutely important for us to know what’s going on and for people to be as transparent as possible, especially people who we voted for to be in the position they’re in right now,” she said. “I personally think that it’s a whole lot of picking and choosing up here with y’all. Y’all pick and choose when y’all want to address something depending on who it benefits or who it does not benefit.”

Following the vote, council members agreed to a request from Councilman Vernon Tillage Jr. to add monthly financial reports to meeting agendas.

Natalie Anderson, natalie.mechell@gmail.com, 757-732-1133