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Va. city manager under fire for hiring secrecy

Some are angry after the re-hiring of the former fire chief was kept under wraps

By Gary A. Harki
The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK, Va. — After a week filled with mystery regarding the appointment of former fire Chief Don Horton as deputy director of emergency management, City Manager Kenneth Chandler may be fired.

Several Council members expressed their displeasure Friday over the secrecy with which Horton’s appointment was carried out. When asked whether a vote to fire Chandler could come at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, councilman Steve Heretick said, “I think that’s likely.”

Heretick added that regarding Horton, he was concerned that Chandler did not involve or get advice from the council “and that it deeply shakes my confidence in his ability.”

Councilman Bill Moody Jr. declined to say whether a dismissal vote was coming, saying he would prefer to discuss the situation in an executive session, which is expected Monday after the council’s regular work session.

“This is a personnel matter,” he said. “But given the state of things, obviously I have deep concerns.”

Vice Mayor Charles Whitehurst, who has been critical of Chandler’s leadership in the past, said that if there were four votes to fire the manager, his would be among them.

“My question is, why did it have to take so damn long?” he said, adding that Chandler has backed himself into a corner.

“I don’t think he can redeem himself,” Whitehurst said of the city manager. “I think he got himself into that position and then tried to counter it with one turn and then another turn and now he’s stuck.”

Council members Marlene Randall, Paige Cherry and Curtis Edmonds and Mayor Kenny Wright could not be reached for comment Friday. Chandler declined to be interviewed.

On Tuesday, a release from the city said Horton, who resigned as Portsmouth’s fire chief July 24, had become the city’s deputy director of emergency management. He is being paid $98,000 a year, about $13,000 less than he made as fire chief.

Horton’s resignation letter in July said he was returning to Richmond. At the time, Chandler said that Horton was returning for a family medical issue and that the chief said he had enjoyed his time in Portsmouth.

Then in September, when The Virginian-Pilot reported that Horton still was on the Portsmouth payroll, being paid under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, several council members said they were surprised to learn of his FMLA status. They said the city manager had told them Horton had resigned.

City officials have yet to provide an answer to a Pilot request for a sequence of events that led from Horton’s resignation email to his continuing to be paid by the city under FMLA. The city’s announcement Tuesday of his new position came 12 weeks after his resignation letter, precisely the length of time he was eligible for FMLA benefits.

The details regarding Horton’s new position remain murky. His job, deputy director of emergency management, is a “working title,” marketing director LaVoris A. Pace said Friday. The position is listed as a deputy fire chief in the city’s pay and compensation plan that is approved by the City Council, he said.

It is not clear whether that position will remain with Portsmouth Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services or be moved to the city manager’s office. Heretick said the city manager has the authority to move employees and change their positions.

Pace did not provide a job description for Horton on Friday.

“I can’t tell you what those duties are right now,” he said.

Horton’s position is separate from the similarly worded “coordinator of emergency management,” which is required by city code. The coordinator of emergency management reports to the city manager and plans for emergencies and disasters. The coordinator, the code says, “shall be appointed by the city manager, with the consent of city council.”

Pace said he did not know whether that position was currently filled. Heretick said the position was usually held by the fire chief.

Heretick said he didn’t understand what was going on. “The way I see this, he has deliberately disregarded the council and demonstrated his disrespect for this process,” he said of Chandler.

And Moody maintained that the turmoil could have been avoided if Chandler had explained how Horton went from resigning, to being placed on family or medical leave, to coming back to work for the city.

“All of this is making City Hall look like it doesn’t know what it is doing,” he said. “Communication could solve a lot of this.”

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