Del. Danny Marshall (R-Danville) and Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Moneta) have filed companion bills in the House and Senate that would put the issue of Martinsville’s reversion from a city to a town on the ballot for voters in Martinsville.
Stanley prefiled Senate Bill No. 85 on Jan. 5, and Marshall prefiled House Bill No. 173 on Monday. Both are identical with one exception: Stanley conditions his bill by adding that the provisions of the act would expire on July 1, 2026.
Both bills provide for a special election relating to the transition of a city to town status; specifically, the City of Martinsville would be required to give voters the opportunity to vote on reversion prior to an order granting town status.
“The ballot shall contain the following question: Shall the City of Martinsville become a town?” the bills state. “If it appears by the report certified by the secretary of the electoral board that a majority of the qualified voters of the city are in favor of the transition from city to town status, the special court shall enter the order granting town status.”
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Stanley’s bill has already been referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, and Marshall’s bill was still pending committee referral Thursday afternoon.
The Bulletin contacted both Marshall and Stanley by email on Tuesday asking them who had requested the filing and neither responded, but on Thursday, Henry County Public Information Officer Brandon Martin offered an answer.
“At the request of concerned citizens, legislation has been introduced to the 2022 Virginia General Assembly that would allow voters in the City of Martinsville to decide whether or not to approve the City’s reversion to town status,” Martin wrote by email. “A letter was delivered to the City today requesting a joint resolution with the Henry County Board of Supervisors in support of the legislation.”
Martin told the Bulletin by email that he did not know specifically who the concerned citizens were, but that Stanley had “told the County that he had received citizen input.”
Martin also provided a copy of the letter from Henry County Board of Supervisors Chair Jim Adams to Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson.
“Henry County did not ask for this legislation, 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 Delegate Danny Marshall and Senator Bill Stanley, the chief patrons of the legislation,” the letter states. “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.
“During the Commission on Local Government’s public hearing, several individuals expressed their dissatisfaction with the public’s exclusion from the reversion process.”
The Commission heard from the public on Sept. 9 at the New College Institute in Martinsville, and Adams, in his letter to Lawson, said it was noted that the City and the County were both encouraged to “better engage with the public in the process.”
“The Commission also lamented discord between elements of the City and County over reversion-related issues, such as public education,” Adams wrote. “The Commission encouraged the City and County to ‘serve and lead the citizens’ and ‘cultivate a greater spirit of unity going forward.’”
In the letter, Adams stated the County sees the proposed legislation as a “perfect opportunity to engage with the public and to listen to and learn from the people who will be impacted by reversion.”
Adams wrote that the Board of Supervisors is now proposing that City Council join them in offering a a joint resolution in favor of the legislation.
Ironically, a similar resolution already exists in the files at City Hall.
A resolution dated Jan. 26, 2006, states that City Council “believes the issue of the reversion of the City to a town should be submitted to the voters of Martinsville.”
At the bottom of the resolution, a typewritten note says “Mayor [Joe] Cobbe recognized former Mayor L.D. Oakes, who stated ... that the City will request a referendum if it decides to move ahead with the reversion process.”
City Attorney Eric Monday told the Bulletin on Thursday that he “appreciated the desperation” which led someone to put forth the effort to dig up a 16-year-old referendum.
“That 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,” Monday wrote by email. “No member of the 2006 Council is on Council now, and no Council in the intervening 16 years has ever asked for referendum legislation, including that Council, in 2006, or any year afterwards.
“The resolution is not binding on the current Council, nor upon the current reversion process begun in 2020.”
The resolution also referenced two bills, also filed by Marshall, calling for a referendum regarding reversion to be voted upon by both the voters of the City and the County.
The resolution called for both bills to be rejected in the General Assembly, where they ultimately failed.
The bills were introduced again without success in 2014 and in 2020.
Lawson told the Bulletin, shortly after receiving Adams’ request to join the County in support of the bills filed by Marshall and Stanley, that 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.”
Lawson described the legislation on the table now as “another last-minute attempt” to repeat what the County has done before.
“City Council has voted to proceed with reversion, as required by the law that applies to all Virginians. We filed this action in 2020,” said Lawson. “Also as required by law, the Commission on Local Government has issued its own report, and said reversion is in the best interests of the City, the County, and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“The only thing that has changed is that 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 noted that the bills require a “majority of all qualified voters,” not a majority of the people who actually choose to vote.
The wording effectively says that even if the majority of people who went to the polls on the matter approved a referendum for Martinsville to revert to a town, it would still fail if the number did not exceed a majority of people who are registered to vote.
“We are aware of no other referendum law with such a requirement,” said Lawson. “More importantly, a referendum has never been part of the reversion process, since it was originally put in place in the 1980s.”
Lawson called the latest legislative action “bad politics” and “even worse public policy.”
“Henry County wants new rules for Martinsville only,” said Lawson. “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, or someone you’ve already sued trying to retroactively change the rules so you can’t sue them.
“It’s not right under either of those circumstances, and it’s not right now.”
Lawson said the City believed in following the rule of law and thinks Virginia should stay the course with laws regarding reversion that have been in place for almost 40 years. She also supports those laws being applied equally to all localities.
“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 said. “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.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 2360. Follow him @billdwyatt.