By Callie Hietala
Two bills in the General Assembly addressing the issue of reversion have each passed the next hurdles on their respective journeys to becoming law.
On Thursday, Senate Bill (SB) 85, sponsored by State Sen. Bill Stanley, R- Moneta, cleared the Senate in a 32-8 vote, and on Feb. 4, the House of Delegates approved House Bill (HB) 173, sponsored by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, in an 82-18 vote.
The companion bills would require a voter referendum within the city of Martinsville prior to a special court granting Martinsville town status if they are approved.
“All other Virginia change of government statues require a voter referendum except for reversion,” Stanley told the Senate’s Local Government Committee (of which he is a member) on Feb. 4.
He recounted traveling to Martinsville with his family for vacation and, later, to practice law. He told the committee about the history of Martinsville High School and said he had a Bulldogs sweatshirt.
“Martinsville is and remains a great city with incredible people who do great things,” he said, telling the committee that things were beginning to look up for the community. “We have seen a slow turnaround in the economic fortunes of the city of Martinsville and in Henry County … we have seen a slowing down in the depletion of our population” and more young people staying in the area.
He said his bill would not stop reversion, but rather put the issue “to the people, because it’s their right to determine their fate and their form of government, not have it determined for them.”
Stanley said that he met with faith-based leaders and activists in Martinsville regularly, and they expressed dissatisfaction with how reversion has been handled in the city. “We have not had a say, we have not been able to have a voice in this reversion process,” Stanley said, recounting his conversations.
To support his assertions, Stanley presented the committee with letters from the Martinsville-Henry County Democratic Committee, a letter from local pastors, and a letter from the local chapter of the NAACP penned by chapter president Naomi Hodge-Muse.
“No citizen committees were ever formed to provide public input on emerging agreements,” Stanley said. “Our city council met formally with city school officials only once during this period.”
The issue of ongoing litigation came up several times during questioning by other committee members and in testimony, similar to when Marshall presented his companion bill to the House committee on counties, towns, and cities. There, several delegates expressed hesitation in approving a bill that might interfere with an issue currently being litigated in the courts.
Stanley asserted that there was no ongoing litigation, and repeated that assertion in response to a question from Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg.
He further clarified when Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, again asked about litigation, this time saying there was “potential future litigation”—that city council approved an ordinance by special meeting to petition the court to form a 3-judge panel to rule on reversion. He said the ordinance “seems to be a reaction to this bill rather than some natural course” of action, and that it was an attempt to stop the bill.
City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday, who travelled to Richmond along with Mayor Kathy Lawson and council member Chad Martin to speak in opposition to the bill, countered Stanley’s claim.
“There is ongoing litigation and there has been since August of 2020,” he told the committee, adding that council voted unanimously in Dec. 2019 to begin the contested litigation process.
“What we hope you will not do is inject the General Assembly’s finger on the scale on something that is currently in litigation,” he said.
Lawson read the same statement she issued after the Henry County Board of Supervisors requested City Council join them in a joint resolution supporting the two bills, which included the accusation that “over the last decade Henry County has repeatedly sought to change the framework for how the reversion process works, and their goal has always been to prevent Martinsville, and only Martinsville, from being able to do it. This legislation is another last-minute attempt to do the same.”
Martin told the committee that he had the well-being of both city and county residents in mind, as his parents were county residents.
Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles, and former mayor and city council member Gene Teague, both appeared virtually to speak in opposition to the bill. Teague noted that reversion has been a topic of discussion since 1994 and part of the conversation during every election since then.
Monday, responding to a question by Sen. Lionell Spruill, Sr., D-Chesapeake, who asked what was wrong with allowing the referendum, said that city council has held elections since the unanimous vote was taken in 2019 to proceed with reversion. Martin, who was vice mayor at the time, and Lawson were both “overwhelmingly reelected,” he said.
“I assume that there are significant economic factors in your decision to revert,” said committee chairman Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack.
Monday agreed. “We are one of the most fiscally stressed communities in the commonwealth. We have a declining school population, and each year they ask for a larger and larger appropriation. It’s on an ultimately unsustainable track.”
In discussing the city’s finances, Monday challenged a previous statement by Stanley, who claimed residents of the future town of Martinsville would face double taxation upon reversion. Monday said that, while town residents would receive two tax bills—one from the city and one from the county—the city’s studies indicated that town residents would enjoy a net decrease in taxes while county residents would see an increase in their taxes.
Stanley countered Monday’s characterization of Martinsville’s fiscal stress, noting that Martinsville rejected the offer of a 1 percent sales tax increase for school modernization. “The response was, ‘we don’t want the income,’” Stanley told the committee.
Martinsville Commissioner of Revenue Ruth Easley testified before the committee in person, telling members there are 17 references in Title 15.2 of the Code of Virginia that require a referendum to change “some form of your local government.” Reversion, she argued, is a permanent decision and should be voted upon by the people.
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall, the Rev. Charles Whitfield, former school board member Lawrence Mitchell, Donald Williams, and City Council Member Tammy Pearson all appeared virtually to speak in favor of the bill. Mary Martin was also in the queue to speak, but did not respond when her name was called.
“It has felt very, very disrespectful,” Williams said of the reversion process.
Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, said he was not interested in getting involved in litigation, “and I’m certainly not (getting) involved in changing for one locality an entire code section that lays out a very coherent and logical process to have the Commission on Local Government address this, set out MOUs, and this seeks to basically torpedo it.”
Lewis said that while he understood the value of referenda, “I have to assume that the people on city council who at various times voted unanimously or with one dissenting vote to go down this path have taken a look at the books and the books are not pretty.”
“The Commission on Local Government has weighed in on this,” he continued, “and they’ve (the city and county) signed MOUs. I’m just afraid that if you open it up to referendum, there are going to be people my age, your age (referring to Stanley), with those Bulldog sweatshirts hanging in the closet, and they’re going to vote on nostalgia rather than on cold, hard reality.”
Martinsville released a statement on Feb. 8 in which it said it would “continue to follow the laws governing how Martinsville may become a town.”
“City Council began this process confident that reversion will result in the best possible future for Martinsville’s citizens,” it stated.
“A single school system for our region, and elimination of duplicative functions such as jails, courts, and the independent constitutional offices … will result in a lower tax burden upon Martinsville’s citizens and businesses, and will enable improved services,” the release continued.
“The city remains confident that reversion is in the best interests of Martinsville’s citizens and Martinsville’s future success—better and more efficient government at a significantly lower cost to our citizens.”