A bill that would give the Wise County town of Pound until the middle of next year to fix its longstanding problems or lose its charter is headed to the full House of Delegates.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, at the request of Wise County officials, unanimously cleared the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee on Friday, but only after several people spoke out against it, saying that the town of less than 900 residents is already trying to right itself and that the bill doesn’t provide benchmarks for its progress.
In an earlier subcommittee meeting, Kilgore called the town’s situation a “comedy of errors.”
In recent years, the town council fired Pound’s entire police force, and questions about how evidence had been stored led the Wise County commonwealth’s attorney to dismiss more than 30 criminal cases.
The county public service authority took over the town’s water and sewer system after the state attorney general’s office threatened litigation over environmental compliance issues.
Nor can the town council even meet to discuss Pound’s problems. After years of infighting and the resignations of several town council members, the body does not have a quorum; a petition filed last month asks the judges of the 30th Judicial Circuit to make appointments to the vacant positions.
But Leabern Kennedy, who joined the town council after a special election in November, on Friday told the committee that town residents are already trying to address the problems.
“At this point what we’re asking for is the chance to fix our house,” she said. “Our house is a hot mess, I’m not going to lie there. But we’re asking for the chance.”
A new interim police chief is working hard to correct the department’s earlier issues, she said. She and the mayor have been making sure the bills are being paid, and they’re waiting for the circuit court to act on their petition for new council members. Several people have raised their hands for the open seats.
“I think you’re going to see a whole different world with us then,” she said.
Steven Trivett, the mayor of Ashland and the town section chair for the Virginia Municipal League, noted the lack of benchmarks in the bill.
“This bill also purports to give Pound one year to improve before their charter is repealed, but there’s no criteria stated about what gains Pound has to make to be deemed worthy of existence,” he said.
The bill’s July 1, 2023, deadline for Pound to show progress is intended to spur action, Kilgore said.
“I’ll go to Pound and work with them to try to help them,” he said. “But there has to be something that pushes the town to do what they need to do.”
He said he’ll be glad to come back to the General Assembly a year from now. “If they get a council going and they actually have meetings, I’ll put a bill in to remove the clause and move forward,” he said.
The committee also unanimously reported out a bill of Kilgore’s that would terminate the Lee County town of St. Charles, which has not had a seated town council since 2016 and has just 73 residents. An identical bill is making its way through the state Senate.