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Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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City council repeals residency ordinance

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

The city of Martinsville is ending its practice of requiring city department heads — except in special circumstances — to live in the city to make it easier to fill those positions.

In a 3-2 vote, Martinsville City Council on Tuesday gave final approval to an ordinance amendment repealing the requirement.

However, in a 4-1 vote, the council adopted a resolution that states that any department heads living outside Martinsville who sell their homes must move to the city if they want to keep their jobs.

The ordinance had required the city manager, city attorney, assistant city manager and department heads to set up residence in Martinsville within 12 months after starting their jobs, if they did not already live in the city. They had to continue living in the city as long as they worked for it.

Several city officials have said the residency requirement hampered the city in recruiting Henry County residents for jobs, especially county residents who already work for the city and have the skills and experience to fill department head jobs that become vacant.

The city has 10 department head positions, five of which are vacant. Four of the five current department heads are eligible to retire soon, officials have said.

Councilmen Danny Turner and Mark Stroud dissented in the vote to repeal the residency requirement. They mentioned that they had heard opposition to repealing it from city residents.

Department heads “need to have a stake in the city,” resident Ural Harris told the council. For example, he said, a department head who does not live in Martinsville might not care how high the city’s tax rates become.

After the requirement was repealed, Harris told council members during business from the floor that they do not do the will of the people. “You do what you want to” instead, he said.

Stroud said department heads should be required to live in the city “unless there is a reason that’s very onerous to their families.”

He mentioned part of the repealed ordinance allowed the city manager to make exceptions “when unusual or extraordinary conditions exist” that would have resulted in a hardship for a job applicant.

Yet for employees who live in the county and are qualified to be department heads, “to move a mile down the road into the city” just to take a job is not worth the upheaval, said Mayor Kim Adkins.

Vice Mayor Gene Teague said he also has heard from residents opposed to lifting the residency requirement.

But “I believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of Martinsville to get the best people ... we can” to be department heads, no matter where they live, Teague said.

“There is more to be gained by repealing the requirement than keeping it,” said Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge.

When the residency requirement was adopted years ago, some department heads were exempted due to their longevity of service to the city. There never was a time when all of the workers referred to in the ordinance lived in the city, according to City Manager Leon Towarnicki.

The adopted resolution, which Turner voted against, states that the city prefers to fill vacancies with city residents or — at least — people willing to move to the city or accept a residency requirement as a condition of their employment.

Teague asked that wording be added to the resolution requiring department heads who sell their homes outside Martinsville to move to the city. That passed in a 3-2 vote with Stroud and Turner opposed.

During the Aug. 13 council meeting, Towarnicki said what is more important than a residency requirement is for department heads, wherever they live, to be able to get to work quickly if an emergency arises in the city.

Turner on Tuesday made a motion to add to the resolution a condition that heads of emergency services departments must live within five miles of the city. The motion died for lack of a second; other council members indicated that such a condition would be more appropriate for job descriptions.

Hodge participated in the residency requirement discussion and votes via a conference-type telephone call. She was out of town Tuesday in connection with her job, she and Adkins said during the meeting.

State law used to allow such calls only in emergencies. A revised law that took effect July 1 lets members of public bodies who are out of town take part in meetings via phone for other reasons, such as job-related trips.

Turner voiced opposition to Hodge participating in the meeting via phone, saying he thought the law allowed that only in emergencies.

Council members at the meeting voted 3-1 to let Hodge participate via phone. After City Attorney Eric Monday explained the revised law to him, Turner cast the dissenting vote.

Also Tuesday, the council set a public hearing for its Sept. 24 meeting on proposed zoning ordinance amendments pertaining to child care businesses operating in private homes.

The city currently allows caring for up to six children in all residential and professional zoning districts.

The Virginia Department of Social Services licenses home child care centers for up to 12 children and in recent years, it would issue licenses to operators of such centers without making them contact local officials, Monday said.

Due to the inconsistencies between city and state rules, several child care centers operating in Martinsville homes technically have violated local rules, Monday told the council.

The proposed ordinance amendments are intended to bring the city’s rules more in line with the state’s rules, a report provided to the council shows.

Those amendments reduce the number of nonrelated children permitted by right in a home child care center from six to five, but they allow 6-12 children to be kept if the center’s operator gets a special use permit from the city.

Monday said the special use permit process would enable the planning commission to ensure homes are suitable for child care businesses.

After holding its own public hearing during which nobody voiced opposition to the amendments, the Martinsville Planning Commission recommended that the council approve them.


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