By Callie Hietala
Martinsville City Council voted on Tuesday night to hold a public input session at its next meeting on how the city should expend its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. The city also will create an online survey, a webpage with information on how the funds can be used, and a dedicated email address to solicit further input.
The moves came after a Feb. 22 meeting during which council member Tammy Pearson expressed a desire for a more inclusive process in deciding how the funds should be directed and the projects to prioritize.
At that meeting, Pearson said she talked to other localities and learned that many engaged their communities in the decision-making process. Pearson later detailed her findings in an email to council members. In her email, Pearson suggested that the city should first educate the public on the issue.
On Tuesday, Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles made a motion to hold the public input session, and requested that the session begin with a brief explanation about how the funds could be used.
Bowles’ motion passed 4-1, with Pearson as the sole dissenting vote.
When asked by Bowles why she voted against the motion when the need for such a hearing was specifically noted in her email, Pearson said she believed “in going more out into the community versus always having them come here.”
“Can’t we add more?” Bowles asked. “The public hearing would be good too, right?”
Pearson agreed, but said she would like to see a more inclusive process than what was proposed.
Bowles said she discussed another measure mentioned by Pearson – the possibility of creating online surveys to further receive input – with City Manager Leon Towarnicki and City Attorney Eric Monday. Monday said that he hoped to replace the current COVID-19 masthead on the city’s website with an ARPA-specific one that would include a direct link to information detailing how the funding could be used and another link to a survey.
In another effort to reach out to the community, Mayor Kathy Lawson said that beginning in April, she would like to reinstate council’s neighborhood meetings, to be held in different areas of the city over the next several months. The meetings were put on hold due to the pandemic. More specifics on the meetings, including dates, will be decided at a later date.
Lawson also discussed the issue of public involvement in creating the initial list of proposed ARPA-funded projects presented by Towarnicki at the previous meeting. Over the past several months, she said that Towarnicki received hundreds of comments from the public, which ultimately helped him create the list.
She said, and Bowles agreed, that both staff and council members regularly hear comments from the public through a variety of outlets. “I don’t think there’s a day that ever goes by that I don’t receive a comment of some sort from a constituent … we get contacted almost on a daily basis.”
While Lawson acknowledged that some items on the proposed list need more vetting and more input, others “have been underway for a considerable period of time, and there are some we need to move forward with.”
To that end, she made a motion, seconded by Bowles, that council give favorable consideration to upgrades and renovations to Hooker Field (an estimated $1,850,000 according to the information presented by Towarnicki in February), the Southside Ballpark and restrooms ($400,000), other citywide park upgrades ($500,000), replacing the antiquated MGTV system (a funding estimate was not included in the initial list) and make a $50,000 contribution to Piedmont Arts’ capital campaign.
Lawson noted that both Hooker Field and the Southside Park upgrades would benefit the city both by contributing to the quality of life for residents and generating tax revenue when the facilities host tournaments and other events.
She said MGTV was included in her motion because the outdated system “died last week.” While it was restored to the point that it was still possible to broadcast and record the night’s meeting, the ability for the system to scroll through the public information typically found on the channel had not been restored.
Bowles, as well as council members Chad Martin and Danny Turner, expressed their willingness to approve the motion because, with the exception of MGTV and the contribution to Piedmont Arts, the projects included were ones they had heard about from residents during their respective tenures on council.
“This is what people have been saying for years,” Martin said.
Pearson said that she did not feel prepared to vote immediately on any items on the list during the meeting until a more thorough vetting process was conducted.
Lawson’s motion passed 4-1, with Pearson as the sole no vote.
In other matters, the council:
*Approved the minutes from its Feb. 22 council meeting.
*Heard from Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady, who recognized Linda Lawrey as the 2021 Martinsville Police Department Citizen of the Year for her dedication to helping both law enforcement and shelter animals.
*Read a proclamation recognizing Martinsville High School student Vex Miller for her recent victory in the Eastman Performance Films Black History Oratorical Contest. Superintendent Dr. Zebedee Talley said this marked the second consecutive year a Martinsville High student has won the contest.
*Postponed the reading of a proclamation recognizing Martinsville High School football coach Bobby Martin on his recognition as WSLS TV’s “1st and 10 Coach of the Year” due to Martin’s absence from the meeting.
*Approved the conveyance of a narrow strip of right of way across the front of the former McCollum-Ferrell Building (16-18 East Church St.) to Burch Building LLC, which recently acquired the building for redevelopment.
*Postponed a public hearing regarding adding individual properties to the rental inspection program.
*Adopted on second reading an ordinance repealing the city’s disguise and mask restrictions.
*Adopted on second reading an ordinance amending the allowable height of uncut grass from 18 to 10-inches.
*Postponed hearing an update from Uptown Partnership (UP).
*Heard from Aaron Rawls during business from the floor. Rawls told council that he had “very serious concerns” about a media report he read about funding for Uptown Partnership and the vision plan that was recently presented. However, as UP’s presentation was postponed, he said he would withhold the majority of his comments until he could look at a complete report, rather than relying solely upon one news outlet’s representation. However, he noted that he has “a lot of connections with uptown and that news was not well-received from what I discerned.”