By Callie Hietala
The effort by two members of the General Assembly to enact legislation requiring a voter referendum on reversion in Martinsville easily passed another hurdle last week.
State Sen. Bill Stanley’s proposal, SB 85, was approved by the Senate in a 32-8 vote.
Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, sponsored a companion bill in the House which was approved 82-18 on Feb. 4.
“It’s not for the government to decide the fate of this great city,” Stanley said, speaking on the Senate floor. “Let the people decide. It is their right in a free and democratic society.”
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, joined Stanley, R-Moneta, in support of the bill.
Sens. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, and Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, both spoke against the measure.
McPike, who sits on the Local Government Committee and previously voted against the bill, asked why Stanley sought a referendum in the reversion process of one locality rather than sponsoring legislation that tackled the underlying fundamentals of the code section governing the reversion process in general. He called the legislation “eleventh hour stall tactics” and said it was unfair to the process.
“This process is already laid out,” he argued. “There’s been agreement and (Memorandums of Understanding) hammered out between all the localities until the last moment. They figured out they could use this as a stall tactic in December and put the brakes on it all. So, there’s underlying trust issues and the fact that taxes will have to be raised in Henry County.”
County Administrator Tim Hall previously stated that a study indicated the county could face an 8-cent tax increase to cover the costs of reversion.
“If we’re going to tackle the issue,” McPike continued, “tackle the fundamental policy … that’s where it needs to be resolved, but not at the eleventh hour.”
Deeds, referencing a letter written by Martinsville NAACP president Naomi Hodge-Muse in support of Stanley’s legislation, said, “the problem is not reversion, the problem is contained in the third paragraph (of the letter): ‘historically, the Black community is essentially ignored by the Henry County Board of Supervisors.’ This is a dispute between a white majority county and a minority majority city, a city that’s fiscally stressed, a city that has gone before the (Commission on Local Government) and they have made a determination that reversion is the appropriate thing.”
He said Martinsville and Henry County were once the “breadbasket of Virginia that fed much of the prosperity of the state. They’ve fallen on hard times in recent years and that’s why reversion is the choice of city council.”
Deeds noted that negotiations were already underway between Martinsville and Henry County. “This referendum is an eleven-and-a-half-hour effort to delay reversion, which is inevitable, and further have us take up sides between the county and city,” he concluded, urging his colleagues to join him in voting against the bill.
In his response, Stanley recalled that in 2006, Martinsville City Council unanimously passed a resolution that promised city residents “(the city) would not revert nor take a step towards reversion from a city to a town without a referendum of the voters in the City of Martinsville to be held first. They never retracted that promise. That is a promise owed to the people of the city of Martinsville.
When asked about Stanley’s comments on the referendum, Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson shared a statement from City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday:
“The 2006 resolution was a defensive response to one of the county’s many repeated (unsuccessful) attempts to change the reversion laws to prevent Martinsville from reverting,” it said. “The focus of the resolution was not on supporting a referendum, but defeating the county’s efforts to change the reversion laws. The 2006 council did not ask for a referendum or support pro-referendum legislation.
“No member of the 2006 council is on council now, and no council in the intervening 16 years has ever asked for referendum legislation. The 2006 resolution is not binding on the current council, nor upon the current reversion process begun in 2020,” the statement concluded.
Monday said this marks the sixth occasion legislation regarding a voter referendum on reversion has been brought up in the General Assembly, and each time previously, the city was successful in fighting its passage. In this newest attempt, Monday said the city hired a lobbyist to help argue its case in Richmond.
As the General Assembly prepares for crossover—when bills passed by the Senate go before the House and those approved by the House go before the Senate—Monday said the city will continue to oppose the legislation though, “obviously we are realistic” about the chances of success.
After Stanley’s bill passed the Senate, Marshall expressed confidence that both pieces of legislation would survive crossover. “Stanley’s bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and my bill passed overwhelmingly in the House,” he said. “The only issue is people do change their minds.”
Ultimately though, he feels “we will get something to the governor’s desk,” adding that, if the legislation is passed, it will become effective July 1, meaning city voters could see the issue on their November ballots this year.
Marshall credited Martinsville Commissioner of Revenue Ruth Easley with rallying people to support the legislation.
“She was a real help behind the scenes, getting a lot of people, making a lot of phone calls that helped move this forward,” he said, and added that Easley rallied a number of Black ministers, who wrote letters to the General Assembly and appeared via Zoom to speak during committee hearings on the issue.
“We wanted to show that this wasn’t a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, it was an issue of good government,” Marshall said, “and that’s what my whole point was all along.”
He sponsored similar legislation before calling for a referendum on reversion, but it was not successful until now.
“This is a big, big question for the City of Martinsville,” he said. “A question this big, I think the citizens should have a voice in that, and evidently the members of the House and the members of the Senate think so too.”
Marshall’s bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Local Government, which approved Stanley’s bill in a 9-5 vote. As of Tuesday, Stanley’s bill had not been assigned a House committee, though Marshall’s was approved 14-8 by the Counties, Cities, and Towns Committee.
“It’s not for the government to decide the fate of this great city,” Stanley said, speaking on the Senate floor. “Let the people decided. It is their right in a free and democratic society.”