Allen: you can change city managers

By Frank Lewis -

Portsmouth City Manager Derek K. Allen has apparently had it. At Monday night’s Portsmouth City Council meeting, Allen said he wants to call for Council to meet in executive session to “discuss the city manager and the city manager position.”

Allen did not mince words as he appeared to be at his wits end “I guess I’ve reached a level of somewhat – I don’t know if it’s frustration or what.” That’s how his description of how he feels began.

“There’s a lot of time wasted occupying my time and all these emails,” Allen said. “I guess I just don’t understand if somehow I’m not meeting your expectations of what you want in a city manager, it’s Council’s prerogative to get the city manager that they want and that they can work with, but I don’t understand the emails that seem to make accusations and the adversarial relationship. We’re a team. You hired me, or most of you did, hired me.”

Allen said he believes many advances have been made in the city and there have been a lot of successes.

“I would welcome anybody who wants to talk about issues to come into my office and talk to me face to face,” Allen said. “For some reason that doesn’t seem to happen.”

Allen mentioned that his contract says he serves at the pleasure of City Council.

“If you don’t like that, then you can make a decision to change city managers,” Allen said. “I just don’t know what else I can do.”

That began an evening in which several other members of Council and City Solicitor John Haas voiced their support for Allen. Haas made mention of seeing a string of emails apparently dealing with that very subject.

“I think that some of the issue that’s going on between Council and the city manager is the line between what is the Council’s prerogative versus what is the administration’s in the city,” Haas said. “This line seems to get tested on occasion. There are members of Council who want to know when someone from the city is coming into their ward, demanding to know when a house is going to be torn down. These things are administrative, not legislative in nature. There’s a line there and I think that some of the tension that goes on between Council and the city manager’s office, generally is the perceived or the overstepping of that boundary.”

Haas said the current contract negotiations with the various city employees unions is a “perfect example” of the issue that exists.

“That’s something for the city administration. Council doesn’t have any say in it,” Haas said. “Council gets to vote to ratify or not. Council getting involved in the day to day negotiations or terms of that contract is not permitted under the (City) Charter.”

First Ward Councilman Kevin W. Johnson was the first member of Council to address the ongoing issue that sometimes divides Council from Allen.

“I’m concerned with City Manager Allen’s frustration,” Kevin W. Johnson said. “I’m going to say right now, that I don’t meet with him on any regular basis, except when I need to. He has always been there, answered my questions. We don’t always agree but that is (to be) expected. We don’t all agree here.”

Johnson said he has served under some top CEOs in banking and with the San Francisco, California Chamber of Commerce and dealing with a CEO is different from dealing with an elected official.

“Our change from the mayor form of government to the city manager form of government is more than just words,” Johnson said. “It’s a change in attitude and approach for all of us. It is hugely different and I’ll be honest, when Mr. Allen first came on board, we had our issues. We had to settle into a comfort zone, and we have. I can be very blunt with him in private and he with me. We don’t need that too often.”

Johnson said the one thing he has learned is to follow Allen’s lead.

“He, to me, is the CEO for the city,” Johnson said. “What he recommends to us, due diligence, absolutely, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt always. He has done a damn good job for us, as far as I’m concerned, budgetarily and talking to employees.”

Johnson said the feedback concerning Allen “is incredible.”

“We wouldn’t have passed two income tax increases if we didn’t have this gentleman here,” Johnson said, gesturing toward Allen.

Third Ward Councilman Kevin E. Johnson took the time to speak on the same subject.

“I think I made my feelings clear on my emails today. I fully support our city manager,” Kevin E. Johnson said. “I certainly don’t want to hear from you on every little issue going on in negotiations. I don’t want to micro-manage you. You were hired to do a job. I think you’re doing a darn good job and I support you and your efforts on that.”

By Frank Lewis

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewisPDT.

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewisPDT.