Nearly three dozen people took almost four hours Wednesday night to tell the Commission on Local Governments what they think about Martinsville’s planned reversion into a town in Henry County, and their message was clear:
We don’t want reversion, but if we have no choice, then delay it as long as you can.
Current and former elected officials and — for the first time in this years-long process — candidates, educators, ministers and average private citizens strode to the microphone at New College Institute and told the room what was on their minds.
Former Martinsville Mayor Gene Teague was the first to speak and recounted the times reversion had been a recurring topic during his more than two decades on City Council. He said it proved one thing: “The inability of this community to work something out, outside of reversion.”
“Hats off to them for negotiating an agreement,” Teague said. “Dragging this out only adds to the stress in an already stressed community.”
But two candidates for seats on the Henry County Board of Supervisors offered differing views.
Collinsville candidate for Henry County Board of Supervisors Andrew Palmer: “Everything we’re doing now could have been avoided. I’m disappointed we could not reach an agreement on consolidation. I’m against reversion. The businesses and residents can’t handle it, and it’s going to increase our taxes across the board.
“If you have to approve it, then set the date for July 1, 2024. Don’t shove this down everyone’s throat.”
Eric Phillips, running for the Iriswood District seat, called reversion a “one-sided process.”
“This is terrible legislation,” Phillips said. “The county is forced into an unwanted relationship. This is looked at in a negative way and was done with very little public input.
“How is it possible the school boards haven’t been included? This is a very unfair process and it puts stress on the county, not the city. I urge you to give us time.”
Mary Martin, a former member of the Henry County School Board, said the process was conducted with only one opportunity for input from city or county citizens.
“I gave my thoughts and sat down, and then [Eric] Monday, [Assistant City Manager and City Attorney] berated me for being there,” Martin said. “If you speak out, shame on you.
“The school boards were shut out of any discussion, and Monday said, ‘Who cares?’ July 2024 is the only fair thing to do.”
About the schools
Martinsville Schools Superintendent Zeb Talley, who was not asked to testify during the oral arguments, complained of a lack of involvement and then countered comments during the oral arguments about him being uncooperative in the process.
“I meet monthly with [City Manager] Leon [Towarnicki] and I asked each time for an update on reversion,” Talley said. “He tells me June 2022 is the deadline and just to continue to move forward.
“I meet [HCPS Superintendent Sandy] Strayer once a month, and her group has met and toured our schools.
Strayer had testified earlier in the day that Talley “walked the halls” with her, but had not been forthcoming with details or data of his school system.
Talley concluded by admitting “I have a hard time trying to dismantle this.”
Martinsville School Board Chair Donna Dillard followed Talley by questioning the commission whether the state law concerning the transition of schools had been followed.
“How can it be said that the school board will cease to exist?” Dillard asked. “Our school board was not included in this negotiation.
“The demographics suggest our students will have different needs than county students. I ask that the 2022 date be denied and be extended. This process could take two to three years.”
Henry County resident Calvin Perry said local governments have had plenty of time to review the documents of reversion, but the public has not.
“I have two requests,” Perry said. “Take a step back and give the citizens time to review and then establish a commission to study the future of our school systems.”
Tyler Millner, an outspoken minister in the community, told the commission the public had been given a “bad rap” with reversion.
“You are to evaluate in the interests of the citizens,” Millner said. “The government has exhibited a bad attitude toward our citizens. They are supposed to be serving. We have been given poor leadership.”
Former Martinsville Mayor Barry Greene, a long-time proponent of reversion, said all the studies during his elected tenure indicated a unified government was the best for Martinsville and Henry County.
“None of the recommendations were implemented,” Greene said. “For 70 years and thousands of dollars, all the studies concluded the same thing.”
Naomi Hodge-Muse, a Black activist and leader in the community, said she was concerned about the dilution of Black community reversion might cause.
“If reversion happens, Martinsville must go in completely whole, it’s the only way Blacks will have a voice on the Board of Supervisors,” Hodge-Muse said. “The only power Black people have comes in Martinsville, and I hear they will put West End in the Collinsville District and Mulberry in the Iriswood District. There should be two seats [on the board of supervisors], but the city of Martinsville must go in whole, not split up and divided.”
John Sims, although retired, is a relative newcomer to Martinsville.
“I don’t understand why, when there has been ample time for public input, in 11 months I haven’t seen it,” Sims said. “A little more time needs to take place.”
Martinsville resident Donald Kirby told the commission that “people are not equipment.”
“The citizens of Martinsville, we don’t fully know what we’re giving up, and if this meeting is just a facade,” Kirby said. “I pray somebody will take a pause and let us look at this.”
Public officials speak
Long-time Horsepasture District Supervisor Debra Buchanan voted against the memorandum of understanding and the voluntary settlement agreement concerning reversion when they finally came to a vote.
“Martinsville’s decision is not based solely on their financial need,” Buchanan said. “Schools are not consolidated, and a 75% minority attendance will be diluted. City Council made that choice.
“It’s not a voluntary agreement without citizen input.”
Ashby Pritchett, Martinsville’s elected Clerk of Court for many years, informed the commission that he was also a licensed attorney for more than 40 years and resolved to “get off the sidelines” because “silence becomes betrayal.”
“My office will be abolished, my job will terminate, and then I’ll be a town resident,” Pritchett said. “The city and the county traded something away they didn’t own—our city school system.”
Pritchett called the voluntary settlement agreement “flawed” and “should be withdrawn.”
Pritchett said reversion does not give City Council the authority to dissolve the school system and told the commission he had already sent them the documentation to prove it.
“This is void as a matter of law.” Pritchett said.
Martinsville Pastor J.C. Richardson called the process the problem.
“The opportunities to participate has been too narrow, “ Richardson said.
Martinsville Attorney Heath Sabin was concerned the 3-judge panel might not see the full picture.
“If you try to do this haphazardly, it will implode,” Sabin said. “The process needs to slow down.”
Henry County resident Don Williams said there were three sides to every story.
“One side, the other side, and somewhere in-between lies the truth,” Williams said. “The train has already left the station.”
Martinsville Commissioner of the Revenue Ruth Easley said the city taxpayers have not been given a “full vetting of the process.”
“A former council member once said ‘The view ain’t worth the climb,’” Easley said. “I ask for you to delay and remand back to the communities.”
Collinsville candidate for Henry County School Board Ray Reynolds said the parents of school children have also been excluded from the reversion process.
“Our kids are our future, and the schools had no say in this,” Reynolds said. “If we revert, wait until 2024.”
Martinsville resident Leroy Hairston took his full five minutes and never addressed the commission but took aim directly at City Council.
“This has been forced down our throats,” Hairston said. “You all have done me rotten.”
Newest council member Tammy Pearson sat among the audience and not with other council members before to her time to speak.
“I was not on council when they voted for reversion, and I voted ‘no’ because our city has not been transparent,” Pearson said. “Council didn’t meet with the city schools and did not get enough citizen input.”
Collinsville District Board of Supervisor Joe Bryant is running for re-election this year and voted with Buchanan against the MOU and the VSA.
“Mostly people in my district don’t know why this is happening to them,” Bryant said. “They want to know why we can’t do something.”
Henry County School Board member Teddy Martin told the commission he is opposed to reversion.
“It’s simply not in the best interests of both the city and the county,” Martin said. “School boards have been shut out of the process, and I can’t understand how that as seen as the right way to run a government.”
Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said that, although he enjoyed an excellent working relationship with Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper, reversion makes plans for a new $75 million jail much more complicated.
Said Perry: “We ask for a delay, and I am against reversion.”
Perry’s second-in-command, Steve Eanes, agreed with his boss.
“I am opposed to the county taking over the city’s problems,” Eanes said. “The Henry County Sheriff’s Office does not want to run multiple operations.”
Martinsville Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles shed tears while speaking to the commission.
“So much misinformation is being shared by the speakers tonight,” Bowles said. “Personally, I’m opposed to reversion, but personal feelings aside, you have to do what’s best for everyone.”
Needs to be ‘fully studied’
Doug Binem is the pastor of the Mount Zion AME Church in Martinsville.
“Families deserve an opportunity to understand,” Binem said. “This is diluting out citizen’s authority and power. I ask that we slow down this process.”
Matthew Brown is a resident of Henry County who pastors a church in Martinsville.
“I believe the decision has already been made,” Brown said. “People’s voices should not only be heard, but considered.”
James Cartier also carried the theme of slowing the process.
“This thing needs to be fully studied,” Cartier said.
Charles Roark, owner of Star News in Henry County, said his station has been threatened for giving people a voice.
“We’ve been threatened for letting people talk about it,” Roark said. “I can’t find over 10 people to say they’re for this.
“There’s the mayor and City Council, but not part of the citizenry. There is a disconnect. We don’t feel like we had a say, and we don’t feel like it’s right.”
Charmayne Thornton, a city resident, has a child in Martinsville City Schools.
“This has been done underhandedly, and I’m not for this,” Thornton said. “Take into consideration our feelings.”
Earnest Eaton, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War, said he had been retired for 30 years.
“You all are acting like kids,” Eaton told the commission. “This feels like I’m in the military again.”
Gary Dillard of Henry County was the last to speak, and instead of addressing the commission members, as was intended, he picked up the podium microphone and turned to the audience and encouraged everyone to come together.
Said Dillard: “We can make our community the best we can be.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt.
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