The reversion issue may not rest in the hands of Martinsville voters after all, despite the recent passage of legislation in the General Assembly to that effect. Martinsville City Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to retain attorney William Hurd, the former first solicitor general of Virginia, to “file appropriate actions with the Virginia Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of the referendum legislation.”
The motion was made by Mayor Kathy Lawson, with a second by Council Member Chad Martin. Council Member Danny Turner joined the two in voting in favor of the motion, while Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles and Council Member Tammy Pearson voted against the measure.
During discussion, Pearson said she was distraught at the motion. “We’ve already spent over $800,000 for our reversion attorneys, yet now we’re hiring one in addition, and I truly do not understand why our city council would fight against its own citizens’ right to vote for or against reversion because these are the people we’re representing and I do believe we should give them a voice.”
Turner said, “a Virginia governor once said, ‘no man’s life or liberty is safe as long as the Virginia General Assembly is in session,’ and there is nothing truer than this pertaining to Martinsville.”
The city “has gone through that legal process in good faith only to have the legislature and the executive branch insert at the eleventh hour this referendum legislation” after the city’s action was already in the hands of the judiciary, he said.
“I think we need to take a stand for what’s right. We are listed as the third most distressed government in Virginia, and we have done everything that was required only to have this political trick played on us at the eleventh hour,” Turner said.
“I think we owe it to our citizens to know whether what was done was legal or not,” Lawson said. “We followed the process, we followed the letter of the law, we exceeded the requirements that were in the constitution. We took an oath to uphold the constitution of the state of Virginia. We followed those guidelines and I think we owe it to our citizens, because I’ve heard from many of them saying, ‘I don’t think this is legal.’”
She added, “I have no problems following a process if that process is legal.”
Martin noted that City Attorney Eric Monday previously stated the council held more than 70 meetings during which residents could speak on the reversion process. “This is not hearing citizens, this is making sure about constitutional issues, making sure a larger government is not picking on a local city, making sure that we have the right to dictate our own day-to-day. I think it is very hypocritical, at least, for someone to say that we are not allowing citizens to be heard when they didn’t go door-to-door themselves. I think what we’re doing is the right thing to do, and I think we keep on fighting.”
“If the law had changed for everyone in the state of Virginia,” Lawson said, “that would be one thing, but it wasn’t. It only pinpointed Martinsville. Is it right? Is it fair? Is it just? I don’t believe it is, so we will let the Supreme Court decide.”
Pearson said had she been on council when the reversion proceedings began in 2019, “I would have immediately made the suggestion that we let our citizens first vote on whether or not to revert. I do believe they have the right to have their voices heard, and I believe that should be a part of the process no matter what.”
“It is your belief that they have not been heard and I just have to disagree with that belief,” Lawson said.
Over his 13-year tenure on council, Turner said “this (reversion) is one of the most discussed things in Martinsville.”
In response to the comments about certain council members not going door-to-door, Pearson asked “council member Martin (to) quit doing these personal attacks and alluding to some type of door-to-door knocking. Please stop that.”
Martin said, “I didn’t say a name.”
As Lawson asked to refocus the conversation and Martin and Pearson spoke over each other, Turner moved to end discussion on the motion, and eventually was seconded by Martin, but only after Monday interjected to explain more about the city’s position.
He said as first solicitor general, Hurd was charged with handling all appeals on behalf of Virginia before the state Supreme Court. Hurd, Monday, and Stephen Piepgrass, the attorney representing the city in reversion proceedings, have “all reviewed this legislation, we’ve all concluded that it is, in fact, in violation of the constitution of Virginia.”
Monday said he would not go into great detail about the argument to avoid revealing litigation strategy, but he added Turner was “absolutely right.
“We filed this action in August of 2020 under existing law that had essentially been in place since 1986, unchanged. There is a state law that says once you file that action with the Commission on Local Government, the litigation has started so we’ve been in court since August of 2020. The General Assembly chose to change the rules of this game … at the eleventh hour. We’re very far down the road now. You don’t do that in a football game, you don’t do that in litigation, you don’t do that under any circumstances because it’s simply not fair.”
Monday added, “The General Assembly also passed legislation that applied only to Martinsville, which is called special legislation. The Constitution of Virginia bars special legislation that interferes with the jurisdiction of the court by telling them that they can’t enter the final order on reversion until the referendum has occurred, which creates new election requirements and also deals with the process for dissolving a city. The Constitution of Virginia, we believe, is very clear on all of those issues, that you cannot pass a special bill that applies to one city or one person for that matter. The city is no different from any individual citizen and, frankly, if the legislature can do it to us, they can do it to anybody.”
To illustrate his point, Monday said that currently in Virginia, a person who is in a car accident has 2-years to file a lawsuit. He equated the General Assembly’s passage of the reversion legislation to legislators singling out and telling a person that, rather than the standard 2-year period to file suit, they had only a year.
“There’s really no material difference in what they’ve done to this city and what they could do to an individual, so that is why your legal counsel has recommended this course of action,” he said. “These laws should be made applicable to every locality across the state if that’s what the legislature wants to do.”
Monday said, “I think it’s also very important to note that this same General Assembly that passed this referendum requirement that applied only to Martinsville had before it, two weeks before, a bill which would have allowed for advisory referenda in every locality across the state. If there was any matter of significant importance to a locality, all local governments would have been given the opportunity to send that question to their citizens so they could express their opinion at the ballot box. And the same committee that overwhelmingly rammed this legislation through that applies solely to Martinsville voted that legislation down. So, there is an element of hypocrisy there and I suggest that it’s not only hypocritical, it rises to the level of being unconstitutionally hypocritical.”
Turner’s motion passed 3-2, with Pearson and Bowles voting in opposition. Both also opposed Lawson’s original motion to retain Hurd, which passed 3-2.
Though she did not speak during the discussion, after the meeting Bowles said that she voted against the measure because, like Pearson, she said she did not want to spend the money to retain another lawyer, and feels the city’s current legal team is capable of handling the issue.