By Callie Hietala
Martinsville City Council voted 4-1 during two meetings (Nov. 4 and Nov. 9) to formally adopt an ordinance approving the Voluntary Settlement Agreement (VSA) for reversion. The approval included logistical details for filing the petition for a special court to grant final approval of the document, which was negotiated by representatives from both the city and county.
The council approved the ordinance on first reading during its Nov. 4 meeting and completed the ordinance approval process with a second vote during its Nov. 9 meeting.
Council member Tammy Pearson was the sole nay vote each time.
The Henry County Board of Supervisors is expected to hold a public hearing on reversion ahead of consideration of the ordinance at the Nov. 23 meeting.
Over the course of the two meetings, Pearson made at least three separate motions to push back the date of either the first or second vote to March 2022, “so we have ample time to hear and act upon the feedback from our citizens.” Each motion died for lack of a second.
She noted that the council has 180 days to vote on the matter from the time the Commission on Local Government (CLG) released its recommendations. Pearson said she would like the council to “use these days to gain citizen and subject-matter-expertise input into reversion.”
“We’ve already heard from some citizens during the public hearings,” she said, “but did we really listen? Did the council do anything differently based upon the citizens’ feedback and concerns? Not that I have seen.”
She said she would like the council to hold “many, many more meetings” before adopting the agreement, and asked why the second vote must happen so quickly after the first.
“What is the rush?” she asked.
Council member Chad Martin asked about the cost to the city if the vote was pushed back as Pearson requested.
City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday estimated that the city would pay an extra $50,000 to 60,000 by prolonging the process. He added that, because the city had already expressed a desire for the county to quickly move forward with approval, the city should do the same.
“The county is proceeding with their adoption on the 23rd at our request to proceed with all due dispatch and I think it would be appropriate if we did so as well,” Monday said.
During the Nov. 9 meeting, Pearson said she thought the county would welcome a delay in the process.
Monday and Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson both pointed out that doing that could affect both city and county’s ability to lobby the General Assembly for assistance with reversion.
Ahead of the council’s second and final vote to approve the agreement at the Nov. 9 meeting, Pearson said that while she believes the consolidation of some services is a good step for the community, the process is flawed.
While she supports the city’s scheduled conversations about reversion, “we must know they are too little, too late. These conversations are happening after the documents have been drawn up between city and county and after the second vote tonight.”
“I’m asking that we please stop this mad train and rush to push this through. What is the rush? Did you truly listen to our citizens during the public hearings? We are supposed to be the voice of our citizens, but we are ignoring them even as they are screaming at us to stop the train,” Pearson said.
“If it is not the citizens we are representing in the reversion process, who is it? Who is the conductor driving this train? Can someone please tell us who is pulling these strings,” she asked.
To residents, Pearson said, “I want the public to know that, even if we do take the second vote tonight, reversion can still be stopped or slowed. Your city council members… have the opportunity in the near future to vote again and be your voice. Remember that.”
Martin said the council could still stop reversion up to 21 days after the ruling by the three-judge panel, so there was no need to put off the night’s vote to receive citizen input.
“Our citizens can come and talk to us about the things they would like to see changed or pulled back. We have not kept them out of the process,” he said, “but we are on a timeline, and we don’t want it to cost even more” in legal fees to either the city or county. But “this process is still open to change.”
Council member Danny Turner said the idea of an independent city had outlived its purpose.
“It’s a duplication of services and responsibilities that has sucked all kind of money out of most independent cities and it’s time for this idea of independent cities to go away for the most part,” he said.
Lawson added that the city exceeded the number of opportunities for citizen input over the past two years. “To me it serves no purpose to delay because we did negotiate with Henry County in good faith.”
Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles said, though she did not want to revert on a personal level, she thought it was the right path forward for the city. She noted that her grandfather will lose his job upon reversion, and her father, who works for the schools, could potentially lose his job as well.
“It’s a very serious position that I’ve taken, and I know that with the budget, the numbers, it’s the right thing to do for the City of Martinsville and Henry County,” Bowles said.
In other matters, the council:
*Heard from Director of Community Development Mark McCaskill who shared information related to the 2022 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) list.
*Heard an update on several projects from City Manager Leon Towarnicki, including the solar projects at the former Lynwood Golf Course, the Chief Tassel Building and former BB&T building renovations, the Five Points housing project, and others.
*Heard from Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center Director J.R. Powell on implementation of the new 988 system for mental health emergencies and the subsequent move to 10-digit phone numbers.
* Approved a refund of $8,392.76 to a city business for overpaid 2018 business license fees.
*Heard from Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper on his and other motorcycle deputies’ participation in the Kyle Petty Charity Ride. Council members were presented with commemorative challenge coins and Lawson read a letter from Morgan and Kyle Petty thanking the department for its support and participation in the ride.
*Discussed and suggested changes and additions to the city’s proposed 2021 legislative agenda.
*Recessed as council and reconvened as the Martinsville Redevelopment and Housing Authority to approve the execution of a deed transferring title of 62 Fayette Street (the former Winn Dixie) to JRS Realty LLC, which plans to redevelop the building as commercial space and loft apartments.