The contract of City Attorney Eric Monday was once again the subject of heated debate at the June 28 meeting of the Martinsville City Council. Council members Danny Turner and Tammy Pearson were united in their determination to discuss the issue publicly, while the rest of council were adamantly opposed.
The subject was broached by Pearson during comments from council as the public meeting was drawing to a close.
In reviewing minutes from the previous council meeting, Pearson said that Turner brought up a motion to review Monday’s contract as City Attorney.
At that June 14 meeting, Turner requested council consider reviewing Monday’s contract “to clean it up and make it solely a Martinsville contract.”
A copy of the contract later provided by Turner, dated 2007, stated that Monday’s employment agreement was made between the Patrick County Board of Supervisors and Martinsville City Council and employed Monday as Patrick’s county attorney and Martinsville’s city attorney.
It further noted that, should Monday be terminated for reasons other than real or suspected malfeasance or the commission of a crime, he would be paid a $100,000 severance.
Turner argued that, as Monday no longer worked for Patrick County, the contract should be rewritten.
“I know we said we were tabling that for closed session,” Pearson said Tuesday night. “I understand that from a negotiation perspective, but I would like to go ahead and continue that motion to see where we go with the next steps.”
“Again, that’s an HR (human resources) issue,” said Council Member Chad Martin, echoing an argument from last meeting that personnel matters should not be discussed in open session.
“No, it’s not,” Pearson said sharply, before Martin finished his sentence. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the city since this is utilizing public funds for a contract and the contract is under time for renewal. I would like to see us make a motion whether we are going to go forward with the renewal, whether we terminate it now, or what we do going forward. It is something we can do in public.”
“We had that motion and a second and it was discussed,” Mayor Kathy Lawson said.
“No, it wasn’t discussed,” said Turner. “It was not.”
“It wasn’t discussed,” Pearson agreed.
“You didn’t let me finish,” Lawson continued. “It was stated that this is a personnel matter, and we will have this discussion in closed session where it is appropriate to do so.”
“We’ll make the determination in open session in an open vote because that’s what you have to do,” Turner responded.
“That’s what you have to do,” Lawson agreed, “but the discussion of a personnel matter is in closed session.”
Pearson then made a motion “that city council use the unexpended professional services line item of $5,000 in this year’s budget to obtain outside council to review the City Attorney’s contract before it automatically renews at the end of the 60 days of this year, and I’d like to go ahead and move forward with that motion, so we don’t just let it auto-renew.”
Turner seconded the motion.
“I think it’s a very wise decision to have outside people look at this contract and determine who it’s in the best interest of—the city or, if it’s in the city’s best interest,” he said.
During discussion on the motion, Turner noted as he had in the previous meeting, that Monday’s contract “has all kinds of added stuff to it that makes no sense, does not pertain to this current situation. To take you back to an earlier contract …, we thought we had an airtight contract there, he goes to court, and we get burned for $70, $80, $90,000 there. In this situation, the writer of the contract is Eric, so he’s the only one in a court of law that can address what did the writer of the contract mean. This is a chance to get out of it, write a decent contract that looks out for the best interest of both Eric and the citizens of Martinsville.”
Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles said that, while she respects the opinions of her colleagues, “typically having discussions about contracts in a public session is just a vicious attack on a person regardless of who this person is. It doesn’t matter that it’s Eric, it doesn’t matter that it’s (City Manager) Leon (Towarnicki), I don’t think we should ever discuss a public contract in this way. I think these conversations that you wanted to have, you could have requested to have a personnel matter, you could have requested to clean up the contract. I don’t know why this is coming up in public.”
“Jennifer, I have talked to members of council, I have talked to the City Attorney, nobody wants to talk about it,” Turner replied. “This isn’t a backhoe operator down at the city shop. The only two people we hire are the City Attorney and the City Manager. That’s the only two we hire.”
“I completely understand the process of who we hire and who we have authority over,” Bowles responded. “The City Attorney and the City Manager serve at the pleasure of council. It’s just, Danny, I don’t ever remember you talking about this other than right now.”
“Three years ago, I certainly brought it up,” Turner countered.
“I will say that I don’t recall it,” Bowles said, and Martin agreed.
“I’m not trying to say whether you did or not, I just don’t recall,” she continued, “because we would have had this conversation in closed session, as we typically do.”
“It would not have been brought up,” Pearson said. “It would just auto-renew. I actually had to ask for the contract to even see when it renews.”
“I’m not saying anything about auto-renewing,” said Bowles. “I’m saying these conversations that we’re having in public could have been discussed in closed session and we could have had this personnel conversation.”
“Well, let’s go into closed session and talk about it,” Turner said, as other members of council spoke over each other.
Martin warned that continuing to discuss the matter could “potentially open us up for litigation if we keep talking about HR stuff.”
Lawson called for a vote on Pearson’s original motion. The motion failed, with only Pearson and Turner voting in favor.
At the end of an hour-long public meeting, council returned to closed session (begun prior to the 7 p.m. public meeting), in part to continue interviewing candidates for the city school board.
When council returned from closed session at nearly 9:30 p.m., Turner attempted another motion regarding Monday’s contract.
“Madam Mayor, I’d like to make a motion that we end the City Attorney’s contract and keep him employed and get an outside lawyer to make a contract of employment that extends with a one-year buyout of $50,000.”
Pearson seconded the motion, opening it up for discussion.
“I think we should just have this discussion in closed session,” Bowles said. “It alleviates the 30-day period you guys (Pearson and Turner) continue to discuss. We could talk about it in closed session at the next meeting rather than making these motions.”
To which Turner responded, “Jennifer, if we do that and let it just continue on after 30 days, then it becomes a 3-year contract that is convoluted with all kinds of tax payment receipts and it’s a contract that I guarantee no city or county in the state of Virginia would allow to be so out of control.”
“And we can always rewrite that contract at any point in time,” Lawson said. “I think you’re concerned with the 30 days.”
“After 30 days, it rolls over for 3 years,” Turner responded.
“But we can rewrite it at any point in time, so if it does roll over, we can rewrite it,” Lawson countered.
“With the City Attorney’s permission,” Turner said.
“Then we would have to do a payment if he disagrees with doing that,” added Pearson.
When Lawson called for a vote, again only Turner and Pearson voted in favor of the measure.
“Motion fails,” Lawson declared.
After the meeting, Bowles expressed her disappointment with the manner in which Pearson and Turner presented the issue.
“I think in any professional setting for city council, it’s not following Robert’s Rules of Order or proper decorum to ever discuss a contract in public session. When you look across the state, you see people have closed-session debates. You can make your comments about that particular person, but not necessarily in public about voting for the contract. It’s either a vote to fire that person or a vote to hire that person.” She added that, “prior to councils voting to terminate an employee, there is a performance review conducted.”
In other matters, the council:
*Heard from Michael Sanguedolce of Starling Avenue during matters presented by the public. Sanguedolce expressed concern about the large tractor trailers travelling along Church Street and Starling Avenue, creating hazardous conditions for vehicles, pedestrians, and property. In speaking with Public Works employees, he said he learned about numerous collisions with road signs and utility poles by the trucks. He noted that the majority of the trucks travelling those roads could take alternate roadways and proposed eliminating truck traffic on Church at Fairy Street and all of Starling to Memorial Boulevard.
*Heard from Keith Owens of Meadowview Lane who inquired about where the city stood with the creation of committees to review allocation of American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds. Lawson told him the committee had not yet been formed.
“We are working through some logistics, applications. We will have the Uptown group present at the next meeting. They’ve had a strategic planning session, so we’re interested in seeing what they are looking at as far as the Uptown.”
Owens previously spoke to council during its public input session on ARPA funding, requesting that some money be directed toward the creation of a permanent homeless shelter in the city.
Bowles reminded Owens that the funds do not have to be allocated until 2024.
*Heard an overview of the June 27 Northside neighborhood tour and meeting from Towarnicki.
*Approved minutes from the May 23 West End Neighborhood meeting and the May 24 and June 14 council meetings.
*Heard and update from Courtney Hairston, sports director of the Martinsville-Henry County Family YMCA regarding the City/YMCA contract for services related to city parks and recreation programs.
*Unanimously approved and adopted the 2021 update of the West Piedmont Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan.
*Appointed Ann Gibson to the Piedmont Regional Community Services Board for a 3-year term ending June 30, 2025.
*Reappointed Jonathan Martin, Austin Robertson, and Joseph Martin to the Planning Commission for 4-year terms all ending June 30, 2026.