By Callie Hietala
In a last effort to combat legislation that would require a referendum on reversion in Martinsville Stephen Piepgrass requested Gov. Glenn Youngkin veto the proposals.
The companion bills that recently passed the Virginia General Assembly, were introduced by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, and State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta. The measures require voter approval before the city is granted town status.
Stanley has 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.”
The bills call for a referendum only in the case of Martinsville’s reversion, and do not extend that requirement to any other Virginia cities that may wish to revert in the future.
Marshall’s bill passed in the Senate 29-11 on Feb. 23, with an amendment to add a sunset prevision (already included in Stanley’s bill) stating that “the provisions of this act shall expire on July 1, 2026.”
Stanley’s bill passed the House in an 88-9 vote on March 3.
In a letter to Youngkin dated March 3, Piepgrass, of Troutman Pepper, the firm representing the city in its reversion proceedings, said the “real purpose of this legislation is to interfere with well-established judicial reversion processes” and called it “a last-ditch attempt to derail a reversion that the city, the county, and the Commission on Local Government have all agreed is in the best interests of both localities.
He requested the governor veto the legislation because the bills “would unjustifiably alter the statutorily prescribed reversion process for the City of Martinsville, alone.”
Additionally, Piepgrass wrote, “there is simply no precedent for imposing this sort of voter referendum at the end of the reversion process. Indeed, doing so would interfere with ongoing judicial proceedings, in violation of well-established separation-of-powers principles in this Commonwealth.”
“The decision to revert was not made lightly,” he wrote. “Since 2019, the city and the county have been engaged in a lengthy process of litigation, study, negotiation, and review by the Commission on Local Government.”
He wrote that the reversion process included “numerous public meetings and opportunities for public comment; the negotiation of two extensive agreements; oral presentations by both parties supporting reversion; and a robust report and recommendation by the Commission on Local Government finding that reversion is in the best interests of the City, the County, and the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
The letter said the city recently filed a petition in court to formally proceed to reversion, which Piepgrass wrote was the last step in the process.
“Now, he wrote,” the legislation that may soon reach your desk seeks to impose additional requirements and costs on the city’s reversion. This effort at a legislative end-run around the reversion process is bad public policy and is against the public interest.”
In an email, City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday wrote that the city plans to continue proceeding with reversion and that the bills’ passage does not necessarily mean city voters will see the question on their ballot this November.
“All matters related to reversion are ultimately up to the Special Court, so it would be premature for us to say one way or the other whether, or when, the referendum will be required. We will defer to the court’s determination on that,” he wrote.
He noted that the bills create a situation where, even if the special court ruling on Martinsville’s reversion finds that reversion is warranted, it could not grant the city town status without approval by voters.
If there is a referendum, however, Monday wrote that “the city will definitely be conducting a campaign to explain to the voters why reversion is best for the future of Martinsville’s citizens. The alternative is higher taxes and lower levels of customer service.”
In that campaign, Monday said the city “will also be tackling the large amount of misinformation and lies that are out there as well. For example— it is, simply put– a lie to say that Martinsville High School is going to close, that the city is pushing its debt off on to the county, and that Martinsville tax rates will go up if we revert. No decision on ANY school closure has been made. By state law, Martinsville must keep ALL of its debt. Martinsville tax rates are set by city council, no one else, and will go DOWN after reversion. Police, fire, all utilities, and all city services will remain in place and unchanged after reversion– and in fact, their levels of service are expected to grow. There will also be additional funds freed up to address economic development, blight, and community improvement that we do not have the resources to handle if we do not revert.”