Petersburg Treasurer Kenneth Pritchett is challenging city efforts to strip him of responsibilities with a lawsuit alleging a majority of the City Council has worked to “eviscerate” the office he was elected to lead in 2017.
The complaint, filed in Petersburg Circuit Court, centers on a 4-3 vote the council took in May to transfer powers from Pritchett to the collector of city taxes — a position that’s held by City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides.
The suit plunges a divided Petersburg government into legal proceedings that Pritchett contends are necessary to enforce the terms of Petersburg’s charter. A lawyer for the council says its members acted appropriately.
The treasurer’s lawsuit points to charter language stating Pritchett is the custodian of city money, tasked with overseeing the locality’s financial books and accounts. The ordinance approved in May designates the city manager, acting as Petersburg’s tax collector, as the custodian of city money who is empowered to deposit that money into the locality’s bank accounts.
“The May 7 ordinance is, on its face, in blatant and irreconcilable conflict with the charter, from which the city derives its power and general law,” Pritchett’s litigation says.
Pritchett did not return an interview request Tuesday.
Mayor Sam Parham, who voted for the ordinance, said Tuesday that he could not comment on Pritchett’s lawsuit. He referred questions to the City Council’s outside attorneys on the lawsuit.
Dave Arnold, a Virginia Beach-based lawyer for the Petersburg City Council, said a formal response to Pritchett’s lawsuit will be filed this week.
“We feel that the plaintiff’s positions are not well-taken and that the Petersburg City Council’s actions were appropriate and authorized pursuant to both the Virginia code and the Petersburg charter,” Arnold said.
The mayor said in a May interview that the council was well within its powers to transfer duties between city officials. Parham also said then that Pritchett was in over his head and had not been able to balance the locality’s books as the city recovers from a 2016 financial meltdown.
Pritchett countered in a May interview, saying that the council cut the salary of a staff member who had been working to balance the city’s books.
Pritchett, a former longtime Petersburg city councilman, was elected at a tumultuous time.
The previous city treasurer, Kevin A. Brown, faced charges of embezzling city money. Brown pleaded guilty in January to embezzling between $2,000 and $2,500 in public money and received a five-year suspended sentence.
The council passed the May ordinance shortly after the city failed to win General Assembly support for a state bill stripping powers from the treasurer, Pritchett’s lawsuit notes.
That measure, sponsored by Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, was watered down and eventually died in a House committee.
Pritchett’s suit states that he continued to strengthen the office after the legislative session and that he received assistance from an “experienced local treasurer” to improve operations.
Alan D. Albert, an attorney for the Treasurers’ Association of Virginia, filed the litigation on Pritchett’s behalf last month. The association joined Pritchett as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which seeks to nullify the May ordinance.
Voting in favor of the ordinance to strip him of powers were Parham and council members Darrin Hill, W. Howard Myers and Charlie Cuthbert.
Council members Treska Wilson-Smith and Annette Smith-Lee as well as Vice Mayor John A. Hart Sr. voted against it.