A throng of angry residents crowded the Portsmouth City Council meeting Tuesday, many of them upset with their newest councilman.
On Monday, Danny Meeks, who is white, had accused influential black pastors of exerting too much power over the city.
The words were provocative but not surprising. Meeks was elected to the council in November on a message of reform, without the help of the usual movers and shakers.
A businessman who made his money cleaning up after disasters, he campaigned on cleaning up city government.
To do that, Meeks said, he would have to take on the city's traditional powers. And that's exactly what he's been doing.
In two months, he has called out the pastors, accused Portsmouth's state senator, Louise Lucas, of interfering with city business, and argued for big changes in the way the city oversees school funding and nonprofits.
Meeks' path to the council was not without problems. He has filed for bankruptcy, wrestled with delinquent taxes and has yet to fulfill a high-profile campaign promise to help pay for a legal fight against tolls.
But on a council that faces controversy -nearly -every week, Meeks quickly has positioned himself as someone unafraid to address the tough issues, no matter how divisive.
To some, such as School Board member Mark Whitaker, his views amount to racism.
Dramatic and attention-getting? Yes. Effective? That remains to be seen.
Meeks grew up in the working-class Bide-a-Wee community. James Meeks, his father, ran a dump-truck business in town.
It is not hard to see his father's influence today. Meeks has neither Mayor Kenny Wright's loquaciousness, nor Councilman Paige Cherry's sartorial flair. What he does have is a rough-hewn demeanor that doesn't change, whether he is dealing with the groundskeeper of a golf course or the man selling him $1.5 million in construction equipment.
"I don't come from money," Meeks said. "We weren't poor, but (my father) did everything he could to make it. He's where we get our work ethic."
Hauling debris and garbage is dirty, exhausting
work. It also can be lucrative. So after graduating from high school in 1993, Meeks bought a dump truck and started working as an independent contractor.
"I thought about going to college, but all of my friends were coming home ... without jobs," he said.
Meeks' small company grew to 12 trucks by 1998, employing a team of drivers. Being young, and relatively inexperienced in business, he never thought of incorporating or forming a limited liability corporation, both of which would have provided some legal protection.
During this period, his firm was sued at least three times for traffic accidents, according to court records. Meeks was cleared in one case but settled the other two, one of which was so expensive that he filed for bankruptcy in 1999.
"It pretty much did me in," he said.
In 2000, with the help of his mother, Meeks bought a garbage truck and 10 garbage containers and started Meeks Disposal Corp.
This time, he incorporated and hired attorneys and accountants.
Early on, he got a break. A construction company was doing major work at Norfolk Naval Station. The job was so big that it required around-the-clock debris hauling. It helped him earn enough money to expand.
On several occasions, however, Meeks fell behind on payroll taxes, the part of employee earnings that go mostly toward state and federal income tax withholding, Social Security and Medicare.
Between 1995 and 2002, Meeks was charged about $148,000 in back taxes and penalties. Meeks said some of the problems occurred after he hired a company to handle payroll. Those problems were resolved through that company's insurance, he said.
Despite those struggles, he said, Meeks Disposal had grown into a $10-million-a-year business by 2005.
In August of that year, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people and causing more than $81 billion in damage.
It was the costliest storm in U.S. history. In many ways, it was a gold mine for companies working in waste removal.
The federal government funneled projects through a collection of large contractors, which hired smaller companies to do the work. Meeks wanted a piece of the action, so he and a small team of employees traveled to Louisiana without any work lined up.
California-based Environmental Chemical Corp. won a $500 million contract to handle a large portion of the New Orleans cleanup, but a company vice president was having trouble getting a helicopter to view an affected part of the region.
Sensing an opportunity, Meeks found a helicopter and covered the cost.
"I paid $10,000 for it, and that got me 10 uninterrupted minutes with the VP," Meeks said. "Best money I ever spent."
ECC agreed to let Meeks handle 25 trucks, responsible for clearing half a square mile of land. Before his time in New Orleans was over, Meeks said, he was managing more than 1,100 trucks and more than $89 million in work.
Meeks said contractors were "always being audited and checked," but federal inspectors cited ECC in an August 2006 report to the House of Representatives as a company that had problems with wasteful spending and mismanagement.
Meeks Disposal was not named in the report, but the company faced two lawsuits stemming from Katrina, according to court records.
In one, Tena Hendrickson and her company, Continuum Design, said Meeks Disposal failed to pay her the amount she was owed. Hendrickson, who declined to be interviewed, was awarded $107,500 in a May 2009 settlement. Terra Industries also sued Meeks Disposal for unpaid contract work and was awarded $86,697.
Meeks said the Katrina lawsuits were contract disputes and represented only a small portion of his work in New Orleans. He credited the legal problems to the cost of doing business.
"This storm was so large, and there were so many different people, there were piles of these tickets," he said. The Army Corps of Engineers "would just sit the tickets to the side and say, 'We'll deal with them.' Well, a year goes by, and people are wanting to get paid."
Meeks has maintained a good relationship with ECC and still isdoing work with the company, cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy in New York.
He also has diversified his business in recent years. At one point, he traveled to Ghana to check out a prospective deal importing mangoes. But primarily he's gone into real estate. He is working on two major projects, including one slated for the vacant Cradock High School.
Meeks spent Jan. 24, his 39th birthday, as he spends many work days - in his white Hummer H2, taking phone calls from business associates and council members, driving from deal to deal.
He drove to the high school, where he expects
to soon start building 200 houses, a project that could inject life into a hardscrabble
part of town and be a boon for Portsmouth.
The high school "has been an eyesore for the city for years," he said.
He plans to close the deal on Cradock High School, now owned by the city, in March and start building soon after.
He said he had hoped the project would be under way before he ran for City Council, and he pledged to recuse himself from all city discussions on it, to avoid any conflict of interest.
Meeks' broadening business interests led him to begin paying closer attention to local and state politics. And he did not like what he saw.
"You look at how your city is being run, and it is being run into the ground by just poor leaders," he said. "I looked at it and said, 'This is the best this city has to offer?' "
Meeks decided in January 2012 to work toward a run for a seat on the City Council. Before that, he was a political contributor who lived mostly out of the spotlight. Officials with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce and the Portsmouth Partnership - an economic development group that consists of 36 presidents and CEOs in the city - struggled to find members aware of him before then.
The same was true of his fellow candidates.
"I just didn't know anything about him," said Elizabeth Psimas, who also was elected to the council in November, after vacating her seat two years ago to run for mayor. "I met him on the campaign."
Meeks raised his profile dramatically July 8 at a meeting held by Citizens Against Unfair Tolls. The organization, which opposes the tolls planned for the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, met at a funeral home to raise money for a lawsuit against the
state and the company that will collect them.
The gathering was nearly over, and the group had received only about a third of the $100,000 in pledges it needed for legal fees. Meeks, who had announced his City Council bid five weeks earlier, made a bold pledge that reignited the fundraising drive.
He promised to match all donations up to $50,000. His pledge sparked another round of donations that netted $30,000 and pushed the group over the top. The pledges totaled $110,000, so Meeks negotiated his donation down to $40,000 - still an impressive sum.
He left that meeting something of a folk hero, a plain-talking, unassuming local boy who wasn't afraid to spend his money for something he believed in.
Seven months later, the anti-toll group's officials are waiting for most of the money he pledged, and some say he used the situation to make a political name for himself. So far, Meeks has paid $10,000.
The group's director, Terry Danaher, said that she has talked to Meeks several times about the money, and that he assures her he will pay the lawyers. Other members are not convinced.
"I think he did this for political reasons," said Shirley Roebuck, general manager of Gilco Trucking Co. in Portsmouth. "We have asked him for the money. We have asked him for part of the money. And we have sent him lawyer bills. He has done nothing. He has left us holding the bag."
Danaher said that while she thinks Meeks certainly benefited politically from his pledge, she also believes he will pay the $30,000. She said she finds him to be more genuine than she had expected.
"I feel better than I did, from watching him work on council," she said. "I think he is trying to do the right thing."
Meeks said a $10,000 check for the lawyers, whom he deals with directly, has been sitting on his desk for two weeks.
As the lawsuit progresses, Meeks said, he is scheduled to pay at certain benchmarks in the proceedings.
"I'm not off my benchmark," he said.
After the July donation pledge, Meeks used his newfound popularity and more than $108,853 of his own money to secure a seat on the City Council. He was elected in November, defeating incumbent Steve Heretick.
Meeks had a good bit of populist support, including from volunteers who went door to door for him, said Pat Simons, president of the Portsmouth Taxpayer Alliance, a fiscal watchdog group.
"I think a lot of people felt it was time to get someone on council who could change the direction of this city," Simons said. "Danny Meeks seemed really engaged and ready to do some great things."
In the two months since joining the council, Meeks has dived straight into the messiness of Portsmouth politics.
The past year has not been flattering for the city. It has made headlines for all of the wrong reasons.
The city manager and city attorney were forced to resign after disputes with the council, costing taxpayers more than $300,000 in severance pay. A special grand jury is investigating how former Fire Chief Don Horton resigned and then ended up back on the city's payroll.
Last month, Councilman Bill Moody Jr. and a woman who says she gave birth to his child filed protective orders against each other.
And a dispute between city and school officials culminated Feb. 13 with a special grand jury report's finding that the School Board and superintendent spent millions in leftover money on school construction projects between 2007 and 2011 without city approval and while the City Council wasn't paying attention.
Already, Meeks has targeted school funding, and he's motivated, at least in part, by the grand jury report. In his first big initiative, Meeks wants to put tighter reins on school budgets and cut funding, which will make government more efficient and transparent, he argues.
Another goal is to challenge Portsmouth's power structure. He said he wants to lessen the influence state Sen. Lucas and the Rev. Joe B. Fleming of Third Baptist Church, both of whom Meeks says have had too much sway over the council. Neither Lucas nor Fleming returned calls seeking comment.
In 2008, Lucas formed two companies to build a hotel and conference center in Portsmouth, but a close council vote denied access to millions in tax-exempt federal and state bonds that would have helped pay for the project. She sued the city for $97.7 million in damages stemming from the bond denial, but the lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
"Louise Lucas always has had her finger on the pulse of City Council," Meeks said. "She wanted something, she got it done, up until the time council didn't approve funding of her hotel."
"Just going forward, if Louise has a grand idea and has a way to fund it, we'll support it," Meeks said. "But if she's looking for funding from the city, we want no part of it."
Fleming and Mayor Wright were the targets this week when Meeks accused some of the black council members of caving to outside influence.
Meeks said a majority of the council had agreed to permanently hire City Manager John Rowe and City Attorney George Willson, who have been serving on an interim basis. That changed after Fleming, an influential Portsmouth pastor, showed up at the council's Feb. 19 work session and lobbied the black members to change their votes.
Meeks also said Fleming pushed City Council members into supporting the Center for Community Development Inc., a now-defunct nonprofit that the city has given $256,000 since November 2011. The city has to repay $313,000 to the federal government because three CCDI houses are in foreclosure. It will also pay as much as $128,000 toward getting a fourth home free of liens so it can be completed under a federal program and sold to a qualified buyer.
"None of the preachers should have any more pull than any of the citizens over City Council," Meeks said.
He responded by paying for automatic phone calls to citizens urging them to contact the council about the matter.
While the robocalls targeted Wright in particular, the mayor chalked up much of the tension between the two during the past week to Meeks' political naivete.
"I think once he gets a little experience, he'll probably think better of what he did," Wright said. "Danny has a golden opportunity to help us move forward."
Wright said he does not feel Meeks' actions over the past week stemmed from malice or racism.
"He needs to be careful with his words because words matter," Wright said. "We've got to be able to come together and listen to everyone."
Clay Barbour, 757-446-2379, email@example.com
Gary A. Harki, 757-446-2370, firstname.lastname@example.org
the Meeks file
Danny Meeks, 39
residence Grew up in Bide-a-Wee Manor, now lives in Estate Lanes
occupation President and owner of Empire Recycling and DWM Properties
public office City Council, elected in November, sworn into office in January
family Wife, Katie Meeks; daughters, Alyssa, 14, and Paige, 4; parents, Doris and James Edward Meeks; also, a Belgian Malinois named Ajsa
quotable "I paid $10,000 for (a helicopter ride), and that got me 10 uninterrupted minutes with the VP. Best money I ever spent."