By Callie Hietala
One of two bills in the General Assembly that would require a voter referendum of city residents on the issue of reversion has passed out of committee.
House Bill (HB) 173, by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, was approved by a 6-3 vote in the Counties, Cities, and Towns (CCT) subcommittee #2 on Jan. 27, and by a 14-8 vote the following day by the full CCT committee.
The bill was read for the first time on the House floor, but was ‘passed by’ for the day on Wednesday.
State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, has filed a companion bill in the Senate which, as of Wednesday, had not yet been scheduled to be heard by the Local Government Committee, to which it was assigned.
HB 173, Marshall told the subcommittee, addressed a matter of “simple transparency.” He noted the issue of a 1 percent sales tax increase was not decided by a city council or a board of supervisors, but by residents. “A question this large, to me, should go before the voters,” he said.
Martinsville’s Commissioner of Revenue Ruth Easley appeared in person before the subcommittee, and virtually before the full committee.
She said she was speaking on behalf of city residents “who have expressed to me that they feel like they have not been afforded a voice in this process or full public vetting of the consequences of the reversion action.”
More citizen and stakeholder input has been accepted when reversion was broached by previous city councils, but “since 2006,” she testified, “Martinsville City Council has repeatedly opposed legislative attempts to allow local residents a voice through referendum in the reversion process.”
Easley repeated her concerns about lack of public involvement during her testimony before the full committee.
City Council member Tammy Pearson, who attended both meetings virtually, told the subcommittee that she was not on council when members initially voted to move forward with reversion and was the only dissenting vote on the Voluntary Settlement Agreement (VSA).
“I voted ‘no’ primarily due to the city’s process, its lack of transparency, and failure to seek input from a broad base of our citizens.”
“Please ask yourself not ‘why should I vote to move this bill forward’ but ‘why not?’ Why not vote for a bill allowing for a majority of our citizens voting in a city referendum to speak loud and clear in a transparent, fearless manner about the future of their own community,” she said.
County Administrator Tim Hall, who appeared virtually in the subcommittee session, echoed Pearson’s words. “The city residents deserve a say in their future,” he said. “There are approximately 14,000 residents of the City of Martinsville, and as things sit now, city council’s five members can vote to make a generational change. Once a city reverts to a town, there is no going back.”
City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday attended both the subcommittee and committee hearings virtually. At the Jan. 27 meeting, Monday countered the idea that there has not been opportunity for public input, citing 12 public information sessions specifically dedicated to reversion, as well as four neighborhood meetings and more than 70 city council meetings – all with opportunity for the public to speak.
“Reversion has been discussed in Martinsville for about 40 years, which is about the same amount of time the current structure for reversion has been in place without a referendum requirement for a city of our size,” he told the subcommittee. “We hope that you will leave statutory structure in place as we are currently engaged in litigation that’s already been started with Henry County … We certainly hope that you will not change the rules governing reversion in the fourth quarter of the game.”
Stephen Piepgrass, an attorney with Troutman Pepper who is representing the city in the reversion proceedings, attended the subcommittee session in person and participated in the full committee virtually.
He told the subcommittee that the city has acted thus far under the 40-year-old framework for reversion, and accused the county of trying to change the rules late in the game.
“We’d gotten to the 1-yard-line with reversion. We had a settlement agreement in place and then at the very last minute, Henry County reneged, thinking it could come to this body and change those rules at the very end of the game to favor Henry County.”
He said, “all of the parties”—Martinsville, Henry County, and the Commission on Local Government (CLG)—agreed that reversion was in the best interests of the city, county, and the Commonwealth “and now we’re having the rules changed.”
Michelle Gowdy, the executive director of the Virginia Municipal League, spoke before the subcommittee, and said “the Commission on Local Government really did hear this case and made a finding. We think we should support that finding, so for that reason, we opposed the bill.”
Several members of the House subcommittee expressed their concerns about supporting the legislation.
Del. Irene Shin, D-Herndon said, “my concern would be that each city council member is duly elected and entrusted with the votes and voices of the people that they represent, and I would be concerned that we are overruling what seems to be a recently-elected body and their votes and their voices for the constituents they represent.”
Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News, expressed hesitancy about the bill during both the subcommittee and full committee hearings because “there is ongoing litigation and … we don’t usually intervene in those cases in which there is ongoing contested litigation.”
During the meeting of the full committee, he asked for clarification as to whether there was pending litigation or simply pending negotiation or mediation. Piepgrass confirmed that litigation is pending, and cited a case filed in Henry County Circuit Court by the county. He told the committee the city filed a motion the previous day to send the issue to the special court.
Easley told Mullin that she had spoken with Martinsville Circuit Court Clerk Ashby Pritchett the previous day. “It is my understanding that there are not petitions filed in either circuit court … regarding reversion,” though a contract dispute for declaratory judgement was filed in Henry County on Jan. 5”.
Del. Angelia Williams Graves, D-Norfolk, said that she was struck by the finality of reversion. “It’s a situation that can’t be undone once it’s done,” she said. “What gives me heartburn about that are the future generations of folks who will come behind. This affects their tax base, it affects their education system, it affects so much of the everyday lives of the residents of Martinsville that they should have the opportunity to have a say. We know that there are people in our communities who tune in to elections and they may not tune in to anything else.”
When the bill came before the full committee, Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, recalled the issue came before the subcommittee she chaired in 2020. She asked Marshall where the county’s Board of Supervisors stood on the issue, to which he replied that the board had endorsed both his bill and the one introduced by Stanley.
Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Ashburn, asked if the public had been given the opportunity to engage or provide feedback throughout the process.
Marshall again deferred to Easley, who challenged Monday’s previous assertion that, in addition to reversion-specific meetings, the public had been given opportunity to speak during each city council meeting. Easley argued that many of the public comment portions of city council meetings had been closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so to have a comment heard, a resident needed to email or reach out to a member of council or the clerk which, she said, could have been difficult for the city’s elderly population who were not technologically savvy.
The initial vote of the full committee was 13-9 in favor of the bill, but Mullin asked that the bill be reconsidered to allow a member to change their vote. The final vote on the bill by the committee was 14-8, moving the bill on to a vote by the full House of Delegates.