She saw the challenges of 2020 and it led her to become Portsmouth’s city manager

Josh Reyes, The Virginian-Pilot
·7 min read

As Angel Jones watched reports last year of the pandemic ravaging the world and demonstrators across the country fighting for social justice, she looked at herself and asked if she was fulfilling her purpose.

She was comfortable in Maryland working as a consultant with the federal government, but she wasn’t passionate about it. A former city manager in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and interim manager in Eugene, Oregon, Jones felt sidelined watching the news every day.

“I felt that with the skills that I have, and the experiences that I have, I needed to be at the table,” Jones said.

Jones is now at the table in Portsmouth as its city manager, leading its government as she learns the ins and outs of city hall and the neighborhoods, businesses and organizations there.

Until she applied for the job, she had little familiarity with Portsmouth, which was founded in 1752. As a result, Jones, who was sworn in April 9, brings a combination of an outsider’s perspective and an understanding of how to run a city government.

Jones has led a City Council meeting, answering questions and getting input from the council members about the proposed budget. But in her few public appearances, Jones has not said much beyond the topics on the agenda, refraining from sharing big picture plans or sweeping changes she wants to implement.

That’s largely because those types of plans don’t exist — at least right now.

“First and foremost, my approach is always to get all the facts,” Jones said in an interview at City Hall. “I’m new, so I’m, I’m getting information. I’m scheduling myself to go to civic association meetings, and I’m showing up at different events so that I can hear firsthand from people in this community about their values and their priorities, and then also talking to the elected officials to understand their priorities and what they’re looking for.”

As city manager, Jones said she bases her decisions on whom they benefit, not how she thinks someone will react. It’s a job full of tough decisions, and it’s not possible to please everyone, Jones said.

“You may not agree with the approach that I’m going to take, but I’m going to respect the feedback that you give me, I’m going to take it into consideration and then I’m going to make a decision.”

While she doesn’t have a set of actions planned out for her first few weeks on the job, Jones identified areas that need attention.

Public safety

One of the immediate tasks in front of Jones is hiring a new police chief.

Former City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton suspended former police chief Angela Greene in September and resigned shortly after — the council voted 4-3 to accept Pettis Patton’s resignation. Greene had approved charges against several prominent officials after a crowd of demonstrators destroyed a defaced the city’s confederate monument. Those charges were dismissed, and interim City Manager LaVoris Pace later fired Greene.

The city is seeking applicants for police chief until mid-May. Jones said the person she hires will be committed to community policing and will understand the importance of officers being part of communities regularly, not just when a crisis occurs.

Jones said there should be an assessment of department practices that are working and not working, and a deeper look at training and whether officers are “culturally competent to work in a diverse community” and “feel comfortable working in that environment.”

The police department is also severely understaffed, and Jones said that to fill those positions, the city must show it values police officers by ensuring competitive wages, good working conditions and advancement opportunities.

Jones’ view of public safety extends beyond the police and fire departments and the Sheriff’s Office. It includes social services, community resources for mental health, recreation opportunities, schools, workforce development and services for the homeless. Using a broad framework gives city government its best chance to pull together resources and contribute to a good quality of life, she said.

Nationwide demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd being killed by a Minneapolis police officer spurred Jones to return to a civic career, and she believes governments must look at their policies to identify ones that are restrictive, exclusive or inequitable, either by design or unintentionally.

Of immediate concern is the pandemic, and Jones has had discussions with the health district about reopening the city as more residents get the vaccine. The City Council still meets virtually, and buildings like City Hall and the libraries are closed.

“We better serve our residents with open doors and in-person services, but we need to figure out how to do that safely,” Jones said.

Business opportunities

Jones joined the city after residents had voted in favor of a casino and as officials and private developers work to get permission to start construction. In recent weeks, two council members have expressed reservations about the casino project and how it may benefit residents and the city.

Being a newcomer, Jones did her own research. She met with Rush Street Gaming, the firm slated to own and operate the casino, and visited its casino in Philadelphia, talking with employees there and learning about the surrounding area.

She was impressed with the casino and its effect on the community and believes one in Portsmouth can have a similar impact.

“I truly believe (the casino) can be a game changer. It’s going to attract other businesses. It’s going to create jobs,” Jones said. Before the casino opens, she said it’s important the city be involved in the process by preparing residents who want to work there through job training programs.

Portsmouth, Jones said, has attributes that can aid economic development and grow revenue for the city. Her office in City Hall overlooks the waterfront, a resource many other cities would envy, and the council has said it wants to redevelop that part of the city. The nearby port offers opportunities for growth as well, Jones said.

“(Economic development) is the best way for a local government to grow its revenue,” so the city must ensure good customer service for both the businesses here and any that want to come, Jones said. That means streamlining services, bolstering automated and online systems for better accessibility, and letting potential businesses know what they need to do to get permits and approvals from city hall.

A different experience

Jones graduated with a degree in accounting from Virginia Union University in Richmond and worked at a firm in town and then for the city of Richmond. She moved to Oregon to raise her son and expose him to a different part of the country. She took a job in the city government, eventually rising to become interim city manager. By the time her son graduated high school, Jones was feeling the urge to move back to the east and applied for the job in Gaithersburg.

She worked there about four years and said she resigned to have more time to care for her father. She also felt she’d run her course in Gaithersburg — Jones said that when she came to the city, it was operating in the red, and she had to make some “tough changes.”

“I knew I might not be the right person to lead the city once it was sustainable,” she said.

Gaithersburg is an urban city near Washington with a population of about 67,000. Portsmouth’s population is about 94,000. According to the census, Portsmouth’s median household income is about $52,000, and Gaithersburg’s is almost $90,000. The much larger government of Montgomery County manages schools, jail and public transit in Gaithersburg, and the city carries no construction debt, paying for projects as they come up.

Jones acknowledges that Portsmouth has different issues and things to manage than Gaithersburg, but she said she brings leadership and experience. Running other city governments, she learned to delegate responsibilities and also hold staff accountable.

Regarding the council, she knows members won’t always agree, but she also knows they have the city’s best interest in mind. No one is doing anything alone, she said. “I came here, and I’m a part of a team.”

Josh Reyes, 757-247-4692, joreyes@dailypress.com