This will be a unique, first-of-its-kind week of opportunity in Martinsville. On Tuesday and Wednesday we, the citizens, will get to see how our leaders are representing their plans for Martinsville to revert from being a city to being a town in Henry County.
On Wednesday night we even will get to stand up and offer our views, our insights and our preferences for how elements of the city – schools, courts, elected offices, utilities – would be folded into county government.
We can learn how all of this might affect us, about how much it might cost us, depending on where we live, about why those we elected to represent us think this is a good idea.
And that, friends, is a first.
No one has asked most of us what we think, at least not out loud. Nobody much has listened to what we have to say. Mostly we have been asked to watch and wait. This decision is changing the lives monumentally for all of us who live in Martinsville and Henry County, but we simply haven’t had the opportunity to affect whether and how this will happen.
We’ve thought that to be wrong. Surely the public should be given a say-so on these decisions. But state law has allowed officials to work privately – even behind locked doors – to hammer out what they call a “memorandum of understanding.”
Only we have so little understanding, the memorandum notwithstanding.
Let’s review for a moment.
Since about the time Gen. Martin built his plantation along Leatherwood Creek, Martinsville officials have discussed reversion as an option because of limits on the city’s growing – cities can’t annex property; towns can – and its declining population base (the county has that, too).
City Councils came and went, and influential voices occasionally rose to advocate for this bold degeneration of municipal status. Dollars were spent on studies, and some votes were taken. But reversion was always there, a canary in our cold minds.
Then in the waning weeks of 2019, Martinsville City Council – with four of its current members then seated – voted unanimously to revert, launching a delineated process overseen by the Commission for Local Government. The county couldn’t say no.
That some elected officials thought the foundation for this decision to be porous. That there was no financial crisis in the city didn’t matter. That the county abhorred the idea didn’t matter. That there was no public momentum didn’t matter.
The city finally was igniting this rocket, and liftoff was going to occur unabated. Until it was abated.
After a reinforcement vote in early 2020, you know what happened: The coronavirus pandemic stopped just about every element of government that wasn’t strictly required and managed safely.
Although attorneys were hired, and paperwork was flying, nothing really happened until this past spring, when officials agreed to have a mediator help them iron out their apparently considerable differences.
That led to the infamous memorandum, a list of stipulations that largely addressed schools, facilities, utilities and that most fearsome issue: future annexation by the town of Martinsville.
Lots of grumbling has continued among elected leaders, and just in past two weeks City Council (by a 4-1 vote) and the Board of Supervisors (by 4-2) agreed to updated language that advanced that memorandum. To be sure some citizens have spoken up – the Martinsville School Board is holding closed meetings to discuss some course of action – but none of us really has been able to be heard.
Now everyone will gather Tuesday and Wednesday at New College Institute in Martinsville. There will be all-day presentations – one for the city, one for the county – and then Wednesday night will be the required “public hearing,” which is when we get to speak.
We hope NCI and its about-300-capacity room – before necessary social distancing – won’t be sufficient. Because we want our neighbors to show up in great force and ask hard questions and demand explanation. We want to know why Mayor Kathy Lawson and Board of Supervisors Chair Jim Adams are leading their boards in this direction. We want to know why this is a good idea. We want details. We also want to know why most of the talking is being done by out-of-town lawyers who are cost us hundreds of dollars for every second they think about reversion.
Whether reversion is a good idea is one thing, but how this decision has been reached and this memorandum understood is an affront to due process and public transparency.
We hope you will show up Wednesday and discuss this well into the evening. Don’t let anyone sleep on accountability.
Too many times at similar public hearings our elected leaders have tended to sit there, listen politely and then say, well, nothing.
That won’t cut it this time, council members and supervisors. We elected you to lead. Now lead. Don’t let the lawyers do all your talking.