By Callie Hietala
A pair of bills pertaining to reversion are once again making their way through the General Assembly.
House Bill 173, sponsored by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, and Senate Bill 85, sponsored by State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, would put the issue of Martinsville’s reversion from a city to a town in the hands of city voters by requiring a referendum on the issue.
Stanley said the public is invited to speak on his bill when it is discussed in committee on Tuesday.
Henry County proposed, via a letter addressed to Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson and signed by Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Adams, that the city and county offer a joint resolution in support of the bills.
“Henry County did not ask for this legislation,” the letter stated, “nor did the Board of Supervisors include it on our 2022 General Assembly legislative package. It appears that these bills were filed based on citizen requests to” Marshall and Stanley.
In the letter, the county called the proposed legislation “a perfect opportunity to engage with the public and to listen to and learn from the people who will be impacted by reversion.”
“Our citizens, both city and county, clearly feel excluded from this process and they have spoken through their actions and their request for these bills,” the letter stated. It also referenced the public hearing held by the Commission on Local Government (CLG) during which “several individuals expressed their dissatisfaction with the public’s exclusion from the reversion process.”
Lawson said Martinsville would not join with the county to offer a resolution. The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved its own resolution on Wednesday.
In a statement, she said, “over the last decade, Henry County has repeatedly sought to change the framework for how the reversion process works, and their goal has always been to prevent Martinsville—and only Martinsville—from being able to do it. This legislation is another last-minute attempt to do the same.
“Given Henry County’s abandonment of a Voluntary Settlement Agreement they supposedly negotiated in good faith with us, we are understandably reluctant to take their current ‘invitation’ at anything like face value” Lawson wrote in the prepared statement. “Let’s not pretend this is an olive branch—kindly delivered by a county deputy, in a staged photo-op. It’s a baseball bat, and the county is trying to use it to kill reversion, pure and simple.”
A filing from Martinsville previously was delivered to Henry County officials via a Martinsville Sheriff’s Deputy.
She noted that the city has taken all steps for reversion currently required by Virginia law, but now “some people have decided they can get Richmond to change the law at the last minute to prevent reversion, and apply that new law only to Martinsville and no other locality in the state.”
Lawson dubbed the action “bad politics” and “even worse public policy. A referendum has never been part of the reversion process since it was originally put in place in the 1980s,” according to her statement.
“Henry County wants new rules, for Martinsville only. This is no different than someone trying to change the rules of a game, while the game is underway, when it doesn’t go their way,” she said, and added that the city believes Virginia should “stay the course, with the laws that have been in place for every locality across the state for almost forty years.”
Marshall said that Martinsville is mentioned by name in his bill because it is the only locality currently confronting reversion.
However, he said that “Mayor Lawson might have a good idea—it’s a good idea for Martinsville, maybe it’s a good idea for the whole state … to make it part of the process that the citizens would have a say in such a major change in policy.”
Lawson expressed concern about wording in both bills that seemed to indicate that “these bills require a majority of all qualified voters, not a majority of the people who actually choose to vote” to pass the referendum.
Stanley said that this was an error in writing the language of the bill and he was requesting an amendment to change the proposal to reflect that the issue would be decided by a simple majority of those who voted on the issue.
“We are certain to discuss this matter at council’s next meeting on January 25th,” Lawson’s prepared statement concluded.
“Ultimately,” Stanley said, “I think it is the people that live in the city of Martinsville that should decide their own fate.”
Stanley said he recently learned that in 2006, city council passed a resolution stating that, if the city ever decided to revert, it would appear as a referendum on the ballot for voters to let their voices be heard.
He said that he decided to introduce the legislation after watching the dissatisfaction expressed during the CLG’s public hearings on reversion and after speaking to several faith-based and civic leaders in the community who, he said, voiced opposition.
“From that, it seemed to me that the people of Martinsville should have a say in whether Martinsville stops being a great city and becomes a town,” Stanley said.
“It’s a fairness issue for me,” Marshall said, and noted recent major decisions in nearby localities that all included a voter referendum, including a recent 1 percent sales tax hike to support new school construction, which he said voters supported in many localities.
Marshall also noted that several years ago, Danville held a referendum on bringing a casino into the city.
“When you get a large issue like that,” he said, “I think it’s only fair to ask the citizens what their thoughts are.”
Marshall added that he, like Stanley, had heard from city residents regarding reversion, some who spoke out against it and some who supported it.
“The easiest way to do this is just put it to the voters,” he said.
Marshall previously introduced similar legislation which, he said, “made it out of the House but died in the Senate.” He said he feels confident his bill would once again find support in the House, “then we’ll see about the Senate.”
Stanley said he had several concerns about Martinsville’s reversion, including the fate of Martinsville High School which he called a “great asset.”
He said he didn’t want the school’s rich history to be forgotten, particularly the success of its athletic program which won state championships and created opportunities for some athletes to compete at higher levels and earn college scholarships.
“Our children are our greatest natural resource, especially for our future,” Stanley said. “Not having that important part of our history be a part of their future is just a terrible thing.”
Additionally, Stanley said, reversion would create a “double tax” on Martinsville residents, who he said would pay both town and county taxes.
“That bothers me,” Stanley said.
City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday has said that while Martinsville residents would receive two tax bills, “that doesn’t mean your taxes are doubled, it just means you get two bills.” He said that one of the reasons city officials pursued reversion was to prevent increasing the tax burden on its residents.
Stanley expressed concern, too, about Martinsville losing its designation as a city.
“Virginia doesn’t make cities anymore,” he said. “If we revert, there’s no way we’re going to be a city again.”
He recalled previous vacations to Martinsville “because it was the place to be.” Though he acknowledged that the city is in an “economic rut” caused by theNorth American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), he thinks the city is “working slowly and surely to revitalize our economy. We are a great city and I think we will be great again.”
Though the CLG found that the city’s reversion was in the best interest of the state, the city, and the county, Stanley said that the commission “does not live within the confines of Martinsville” and balked at the idea of “other people determining the fate” of the city which, he said, should be decided by the people “who have worked so hard” to build Martinsville.
“A vote is the greatest power a citizen has to craft the direction of its municipality,” Stanley said, “and I want to give them that opportunity. That’s why I’m doing this, that’s why I’m passionate about it.”
Marshall’s bill was assigned to a subcommittee within the Committee on Counties, Cities, and Towns on Jan. 18. Marshall said he did not know when the proposal would be discussed.
Stanley’s bill will be taken up by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections on Tuesday, Jan. 25. The committee convenes 15 minutes after adjournment, he said, adding that residents are invited to sign up to speak electronically either for or against the legislation.
Information on participating in the live-streamed session can be found by clicking “Senate Committee Live Video Streaming” under the Committees tab at virginiageneralassembly.gov.