The Henry County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to file a complaint for declaratory judgement to stop the City of Martinsville’s attempt to force the board into a voluntary settlement agreement that it already rejected.
The board approved the motion during its Jan. 4 organizational meeting. A complaint for declaratory judgement was filed Wednesday in the Henry County Circuit Court requesting the court to stop Martinsville’s attempt to force the county into a voluntary agreement.
A judgement from the court would halt the city’s bid to use a third-party, private arbitrator to rule on a matter “where it lacks both jurisdiction and authority,” according to a release from the county. “The Board of Supervisors voted Dec. 10 to reject the proposed settlement agreement and Martinsville is attempting to have an arbitrator force the county to vote in favor of the agreement.”
County Attorney George Lyle said, “the Board of Supervisors negotiated and considered a settlement agreement with Martinsville and ultimately rejected the agreement. If Martinsville wants to pursue this, the matter of reversion and the future of our schools should be re-submitted to the Commission of Local Government for further consideration in an open and public process. A private arbitrator should not decide this matter.”
In a statement, Jim Adams, chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors, said, “the City of Martinsville is attempting to use smokescreen theatrics to force the Henry County Board of Supervisors into entering an agreement that the residents of the city and county do not agree with. Though they cite previous votes on non-binding legal documents as their rationale for seeking arbitration, the city fails to mention the events that have followed those votes.
“Multiple public hearings have occurred since then which led to the Board of Supervisors ultimately rejecting the ordinance on the Voluntary Settlement Agreement,” Adams said. “There is a reason that we conduct public hearings and there is a reason that this process requires multiple votes to move forward. The reason isn’t so we can check a box, it is so we can actually hear from the public. Thus, the board has emerged with a different position than when we originally began.
“To the residents of Martinsville and Henry County, know that we not only listened to you, but we heard you. Henry County will continue to fight the city’s efforts to jam through this unenforceable agreement, not because the city is our enemy, but because it is the right thing to do,” Adams said.
Upon the official notice of Martinsville’s intent to revert to a town, the county began negotiations to seek a voluntary settlement agreement with the city. There is a four-step process for any voluntary settlement agreement to be considered binding and enforceable, the county release stated.
“First, the two parties must negotiate an agreement that they believe is in the best interest of their respective constituencies. This step was completed when the city and county adopted resolutions on Aug. 24, 2021, to approve the Voluntary Settlement Agreement (VSA).
“Next, the agreement must be presented to the Commission on Local Government (COLG) for it to conduct a hearing and issues a report with its own findings. The COLG conducted hearings on Sept. 7 and 8, 2021. A public hearing was part of this process. The COLG issued its final report on Oct. 15, 2021. In the report, the COLG noted that citizens were concerned about the lack of transparency with the process and the lack of involvement of the two school systems,” the release stated.
“It was expressly stated that ‘citizens voiced concerns over the impact reversion would have on Black students who would have to be integrated into county schools, community engagement, and the impact on the city’s voting power when included in the county’” government and school board districts, the release stated.
“The third step in the process is the two localities must adopt an ordinance approving the (agreement) VSA. Once the ordinance has been adopted, the parties would petition an appropriate circuit court to affirm the proposed settlement. The Virginia Supreme Court would then appoint a special court to hear the case. This would trigger the fourth step where the special court either affirms or denies the agreement, giving it “full force and effect,” the release stated.
The county did not complete the third step in the process. Before passing an ordinance that would impanel the special court, the county held its own public hearing, and residents voiced similar concerns noted by the COLG. Being swayed by these concerns, the supervisors voted to reject the VSA ordinance. This means the VSA was never submitted to or affirmed by a special court, which has the sole power of making the VSA binding and enforceable.
On December 20, 2021, the city filed a Claim for Arbitration with The McCammon Group, Ltd., citing provisions within a previously approved Memorandum of Understanding and the VSA as binding, even though neither was affirmed by the special court.
Through the declaratory judgement, the county intends to stop “the promulgation of this baseless claim,” the release stated. It also will continue to fight any effort by the city to compel the county “into an agreement that runs contrary to the wishes of its constituents,” the release stated.
Adams, of the Blackberry District, and Tommy Slaughter, of the Reed Creek District, previously voted against a motion to reject the VSA. Both voted in favor of filing the complaint.
Adams said he sees no contradiction in his votes. Once the board decides on a course of action (such as rejecting the VSA), regardless of how individual board members voted, it is time for supervisors to put personal feelings aside and support the decision made by the entire board.
“This is how we as a board, in the same concept as a team, move forward together,” he said.
City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday said that he found out about the board’s action via local news media the next morning, though, as of press time, had not seen the actual complaint so could not respond specifically.
Generally, however, Monday said, “we already told them ‘See you in court,’ so I suspect we’ll be haggling over this for a while.”
Stephen Piepgrass, of Troutman Pepper, who is representing the city in reversion proceedings, said that, though he also had yet to see the complaint and did not know the specifics of the county’s argument, “we would not have filed this claim in arbitration if we didn’t believe that that’s exactly where this claim needs to be. I think both agreements make that very clear.”
Both the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and the VSA include arbitration clauses specifying the steps and requirements for disputes that may arise, according to Piepgrass, who added the city’s action was consistent with both agreements, which were both signed by city and county officials.
“The VSA was also signed by the county,” Piepgrass said. “In the VSA, they said they would be passing ordinance, and they failed to do that, but both (documents have the county’s signature all over them.”
Piepgrass noted the county previously passed a resolution that it would vote favorably for the VSA.
“They have said time and time again that they were going to abide by their agreement, and it was only in the very last minute that they changed position,” he said.