By Callie Hietala
In a 4 to 1 vote, Martinsville City Council on Tuesday adopted on first reading an ordinance authorizing a contested reversion to town status within Henry County.
Council member Tammy Pearson, who attended the meeting via phone due to a potential COVID exposure, was the sole nay vote.
The council scheduled a second reading and potential approval of the ordinance for Thursday, Jan. 27.
In the ordinance, the city reiterated its desire to revert to a town and that the reversion process be “under terms and conditions appropriate to ensure an orderly transition from city to town status; adjust financial iniquities; balance the equities between the parties; and ensure protection of the best interests of the city, the county, the Commonwealth, and the people of the city and the county.”
The document also “authorizes the City Manager (Leon Towarnicki) and the city’s legal counsel to petition” Martinsville Circuit Court for an order … “establishing Martinsville as a town within and constituting part of Henry County, and Henry County shall be made a party defendant to the proceeding.”
The ordinance is the latest in an increasingly litigious battle over the city’s proposed reversion.
On Dec. 14, the Henry County Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to reject a Voluntary Settlement Agreement (VSA) previously negotiated between city and county officials. Had the county voted to approve the VSA, the action would have triggered the convening of a special 3-judge panel that would ultimately decide whether to grant Martinsville town status.
Following the county’s rejection of the VSA, the city on Dec. 20 filed a claim for arbitration with The McCammon Group, Ltd., citing provisions in the previously approved Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and in the VSA laying out steps and requirements for settling disputes.
On Jan. 4, the county approved a motion to file a complaint for declaratory judgement in Henry County Circuit Court to stop the city’s attempt to force the board to comply with the agreement. In a statement, the county stated that, since no ordinance was adopted to approve the VSA, it was not bound by the terms of the document.
City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday on Tuesday said, “it is their position that the VSA that they signed and voted to approve twice is essentially a Kleenex with no legal ramifications whatsoever.”
This most recent ordinance, according to Monday, is “another step to activate the 3-judge panel” and is statutorily required to proceed with a contested reversion.
“It is our position that once this 3-judge panel is up and running, all matters relating to the county’s breach of their contractual obligations under the VSA—and what we have spent relying on their representations that they were negotiating with us in good faith—should become part of the hearing in front of the panel,” he said.
The city can ask the arbitrator to award the city “all of the money that had been expended from the time the county agreed to begin negotiations” in September of 2020 up until it’s rejection of the VSA in December 2021, Monday said.
Additionally, Monday said, “I think it’s quite obvious that the county is actively lobbying to change the legislative structure that governs reversion, which is also a violation of the VSA, and it would be our position that what we are currently having to expend to fight that effort in the General Assembly is also recoverable.”
Del. Danny Marshall, R- Danville, and State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, have filed bills in both the House and the Senate which, if approved, would require a voter referendum on reversion.
Council member Danny Turner said while some county officials may have had intentions of acting in good faith (Chairman Jim Adams of the Blackberry District and Tommy Slaughter of the Reed Creek District both voted against rejecting the VSA), the majority did not. “It’s time to move on,” he said.
He said he believes “it’s absolutely obvious that the county participated in a stall attempt to get to the General Assembly session, even to the point that they’re trying to interfere in city council elections.”
In other matters, the council:
*Read a proclamation acknowledging February 2022 as Black History Month.
*Heard from staff from the Commonwealth Preservation Group and the Department of Historic Resources, who shared information on a grant-funded project to update and expand the Martinsville Historic District.
*Heard a presentation from United Way Executive Director Phil Wenkstern and staff from the National Housing Trust on the results of a recent needs assessment study for eviction in Henry County and Martinsville.
*Heard an update on operations from Blue Ridge Regional Library Director Rick Ward.
*Approved minutes from its Jan. 11 meeting.
*Approved the quarterly finance report.