PORTSMOUTH, VA., JULY 14 -- The mayor of Portsmouth has denied sending hate mail to community leaders and has refused to resign over the incident.

The council called Monday night for Dr. James W. Holley III to step down if he could not explain why his fingerprints were found on letters sent to community leaders who opposed closing I.C. Norcom High School last fall.

The mayor met with the council behind closed doors; afterward, the six council members asked him to step down. He refused.

Five council members said after the meeting they would support a referendum to recall Holley, the only way he could be removed, they said.

Earlier Monday, Vice Mayor Gloria O. Webb said the council had agreed to ask for Holley's resignation at the meeting if he did not provide an acceptable response to a police investigation that linked him to the hate mail.

She said the council wanted proof that somebody else had sent the mail.

Webb's comments came after Commonwealth's Attorney Johnny E. Morrison announced that Holley's fingerprints were found on three pieces of mail sent to community leaders who oppose the planned closing of Norcom High, which once served the black community.

Holley, a dentist who became Portsmouth's first black mayor in 1984, had been criticized by black leaders for failing to fight the closing.

Morrison said he would not bring charges against Holley because the mail that contained the mayor's fingerprints did not threaten bodily harm, which is a felony.

The mail did contain obscenities directed at Lamar Williams, a Planning Commission member; Harvey N. Johnson Jr., a civil rights activist, and Sam Barnes, Portsmouth city editor of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star.

Morrison also investigated hate mail containing obscenities, racial remarks and threats received by other leaders, including a local judge, a state delegate and the president of the local branch of the NAACP.

The investigation found that the handwriting on the hate mail appeared to be by the same person. Holley refused to give a sample of his handwriting, Morrison said.