Discussion was heated at times during a special meeting in which the Martinsville-Henry County Democratic Committee had invited members of Martinsville City Council to talk about reversion. Four of the five council members participated.
In a small and crowded room without air conditioning, more than a dozen people were on hand to quiz the council members about the implications of the city reverting to a town in Henry County, while about a dozen more joined in remotely.
While the Martinsville school board met across the road for a regular meeting at the City Municipal Building, the Democratic Committee members peppered Mayor Kathy Lawson, Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles and Council Members Danny Turner and Tammy Pearson with questions. often in loud and angry tones.
Local NAACP Chapter President Naomi Hodge-Muse accused council members of diluting the Black vote in Martinsville by agreeing with Henry County to only one town representative on the board of supervisors.
Hodge-Muse explained that five council members represent almost 2,600 residents each with Martinsville as an independent city, but reversion would leave only one person to represent the entire population of nearly 13,000.
Turner responded by saying that the combined population of Henry County and the proposed Town of Martinsville would be just over 63,000, and using Hodge-Muse’s math, that would mean an average constituent base of right at 9,000 divided evenly among seven representatives on the Board of Supervisors.
Henry County divides representation by districts, and there are currently six. It has not been made clear whether the Town of Martinsville would become a district defined by its boundaries or whether new boundary lines might be drawn.
A second pressing question from committee members centered around plans for the Martinsville High School building on Commonwealth Boulevard once reversion takes place and the property becomes that of Henry County Public Schools.
“I can say that I am very concerned about this,” said Bowles. “If you look at the closing of Laurel Park High School, it was a predominately Black school, and now we’re hearing they might close Martinsville High School, which is another predominately Black school. We don’t think that’s fair, and we don’t want to see that happen.”
Turner joined Bowles in explaining that the Harvest Foundation is expected to fund a comprehensive study on the best use of school buildings after reversion and the greatest efficiencies in determining which students would go to which schools.
“That’s for the experts to decide,” said Turner.
But state law says that decision rests with the Henry County School Board. Experts are relegated to opinion only, and those opinions may be accepted, amended or rejected by the board.
Henry County School Superintendent Sandy Strayer has stated that no decision regarding use of schools has been made and has indicated the process will take time.
Oftentimes the small crowd talked over one another, and even the four council members were heard answering the same question at the same time, making for both a loud and hot meeting.
But the lack of formality also gave way for the opportunity for some residents of Martinsville and Henry County to have direct conversations outside the confines of a structured public comment opportunity with no give-and-take.
Lawson said she thought the effective date of reversion would likely be pushed out to 2023 or even 2024, despite Council’s recommendation that it go into effect next year.
Turner said he thought it was likely, even if Martinsville declined to revert to a town in the end, that the General Assembly might “do away with this craziness of independent cities” within the next five years.
One audience member asked why the public was not allowed to observe what was agreed upon during private negotiations between the two governments.
“Because you see what it’s like in this room,” said Turner. “They wouldn’t have gotten nothin’ done.”
Turner pitched a copy of the Voluntary Settlement Agreement on the table and said: “It’s all in there. This is what they did.”
Pearson said she understood and agreed with those who thought the decision process should have been discussed in public.
“The question was not to participate in the negotiation, but to observe what was being negotiated,” said Pearson. “If this had been hammered out in public then we would know how it came about, what deals were made to get there. It’s all about being transparent, and that’s something that’s been lacking in this entire process.”
Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-638-8801, Ext. 236. Follow him @billdwyatt.