A legal showdown looms over the fate of the Petersburg treasurer’s powers after the City Council narrowly approved a measure this month to strip duties from the elected official’s department.
By a 4-3 vote, the council on Tuesday approved an ordinance to make the city’s collector of taxes, currently the city manager, responsible for depositing local funds with banks and providing council members with regular reports on the state of the treasury.
The move is the city’s administration’s latest attempt to shift duties from the treasurer’s office, which had been a source of controversy before the current treasurer, Ken Pritchett, was elected in 2017.
Pritchett, who succeeded a former treasurer convicted of embezzling public funds, has drawn criticism from city officials who say his office is behind in balancing the books. Pritchett says he has brought in outside help to address problems that predate him.
The prospect alone of shifting power to the city manager drew a rebuke from the Treasurers Association of Virginia, which penned a letter to the city dated May 6 saying the city’s charter and state law mandates that the treasurer, Pritchett, is the custodian of city funds.
“Let me say at the outset how deeply disappointed the Association is by this effort to eviscerate the Treasurer’s office by ordinance, and to do so on precious little notice,” wrote Alan D. Albert, a lawyer for the association.
Albert said in an interview that he expects the matter will end up in litigation, probably with Pritchett suing to have the ordinance invalidated and the association supporting his lawsuit. Albert noted this month’s ordinance passed even after Petersburg officials failed to secure changes to the city charter in this year’s General Assembly that sought to wrest duties from Pritchett’s office.
Because Virginia observes the Dillon rule, the actions that Petersburg can take as a local jurisdiction are restricted by state law.
State Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, introduced the unsuccessful bill that sought to strip Pritchett of his duties as the custodian of city funds. The measure sought to transfer those duties to City Manager Aretha R. Ferrell-Benavides. The city manager supported the bill, saying her office needed to stabilize a core city function that she said was falling to the wayside in the understaffed treasurer’s office.
During a January committee hearing, some senators expressed concern about watering down the duties of an elected official. A much more limited version of Dance’s measure passed the Senate but was tabled in the House.
It’s not unheard of to have a local treasurer’s duties scaled back. In 2016, the General Assembly changed the Colonial Heights charter to limit the treasurer’s job there.
Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham, who voted for Tuesday’s ordinance, said the majority on the council was within its powers to reassign duties among city officials. Parham said the city charter already calls for a city collector of taxes, a position held since 2017 by Ferrell-Benavides.
The mayor suggested Pritchett is in over his head at the treasurer’s office and has not been able to balance the locality’s books at a time when city finances remain fragile as it recovers from a 2016 fiscal meltdown that left it in danger of being unable to pay its bills.
The mayor added that Pritchett, a Realtor, did not come to the job with financial or accounting expertise.
“We don’t have time for people to get into a position and try to learn to do the job,” Parham said.
Pritchett, for his part, questioned the mayor’s qualifications to be in his post. Pritchett added that after he became treasurer, the council cut the salary of a staff member in his office who had been working to balance the books.
Pritchett, a former Petersburg city councilman for 12 years, was elected at a tumultuous time; the previous city treasurer, Kevin A. Brown, faced charges of embezzling city money. Brown pleaded guilty in January of embezzling between $2,000 and $2,500 in public money, and received a five-year suspended sentence.
“I ran because there was chaos in this office and in the rest of the city,” Pritchett said in an interview.
Pritchett acknowledged he did not come to the job with financial or accounting expertise, but he added that a retired county treasurer and another county treasurer have been assisting his office.
“I recognized the need to bring in outside help to help us catch up from the previous [treasurer],” Pritchett said.
Pritchett said he learned about Tuesday’s ordinance after reading a legal notice in the Progress-Index newspaper. Voting in favor of the ordinance was Parham and councilmen Darrin Hill, W. Howard Myers and Charlie Cuthbert.
Those four members also defeated a motion to delay the vote until the public had more time to consider the ordinance. Council members Treska Wilson-Smith, Annette Smith-Lee and Vice Mayor John A. Hart Sr. voted against it.