New supermajority of Portsmouth City Council scraps previous request to change recall process

A new supermajority of the Portsmouth City Council has rescinded a previous decision and will no longer pursue changes in how elected officials are recalled from office.

In December, the previous council voted 5-2 to request a bill in the General Assembly that would amend the city charter to tighten the eligible reasons for recalling elected officials and to allow voters to begin that process as soon as they take office, rather than a year after beginning their terms. Additionally, Circuit Court judges would have been allowed to hold a hearing and determine the legitimacy of recall petitions.

With the change, recalls could only be launched against elected officials for neglect of duty, misuse of office, incompetence, or a misdemeanor conviction that would have a negative effect on their ability to perform in their elected positions.

In the last legislative session, state Sen. Louise Lucas unsuccessfully sought legislation asking for the charter change. But during a November work session, councilman Mark Whitaker requested the proposed bill be added to the list of legislative priorities as it would align with state law. He previously called it a tool historically used against Black leaders, citing previous attempts against Sen. Lucas and former Mayor Kenny Wright, for example.

Last week’s 5-2 vote to revoke the request comes after the departure of two councilmen who supported the charter change but were replaced in the November election — and because Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke reversed course and aligned her vote with the new majority.

Whitaker and councilman De’Andre Barnes, who voted against rescinding the request, are the subjects of a recall petition that was launched after their vote in May to fire City Manager Angel Jones. Several Portsmouth residents spoke in opposition to the charter change last month because of that.

But Whitaker said last week that this issues predates his return to City Council in 2020. He also said that Black participation in the ongoing recall efforts still doesn’t give legitimacy to the cause.

“The rescinding of the recall has nothing to do with me trying to protect my seat here on Council,” Whitaker said. “As far as a recall, I can care less. That’s your right to do that. I serve at the pleasure of the people.”

Lucas-Burke said she changed her mind because she’s since learned that city charter language for recall petitions differs across Hampton Roads and the Commonwealth. She suggested the council review all of its charter’s policies before making any “knee-jerk” reaction.

“We should be different in how we look at our process,” she said during the council’s Tuesday meeting.

Recall petitions currently require the signatures of at least 30% of the voters who cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election before they can be filed in Circuit Court. Mark Geduldig-Yatrofsky, who’s involved in the efforts to recall Whitaker and Barnes, said last month that at least 5,000 Portsmouth voters had signed the petition to recall the politicians. A total of 30,105 Portsmouth residents cast ballots in the 2021 election, and organizers have previously said they’re aiming for at least 10,000 signatures.

Natalie Anderson, 757-732-1133,