The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. lawmakers voted to dissolve a troubled town. Can residents save it?

Pound, Va., Vice Mayor Leabern Kennedy speaks on the phone with Andrea Erard, a lawyer, who has volunteered to train council members on the principles of town governance. (Gregory S. Schneider/The Washington Post)
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POUND, Va. — Leabern Kennedy lit a Virginia Slims and opened a Mountain Dew Zero. It was almost 10 p.m. She’d started work on her day job about 14 hours ago, sat through a long town council training session and now was on the phone with a lawyer from across the state.

Kennedy, newly installed as vice mayor, knew her town was dying. Like other places in Appalachia, its coal-based economy is gone, its tiny population aging and declining. But that is just the start of Pound’s problems.

Last fall, most of Pound’s remaining business owners decided to stop paying taxes because the town’s finances are in chaos. Every town employee quit or was fired. The cashier was convicted of embezzling from the public account. When the police department disbanded, the local prosecutor dismissed all 31 pending criminal cases because evidence was so mishandled.

Now Pound is literally facing a death sentence. After so much dysfunction, the General Assembly more than 350 miles away in Richmond has taken the unusual step of voting to revoke the town’s charter over the objections of its residents.

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The move has shocked local government advocates around Virginia. “The things that have gone wrong in Pound — those same risks exist for every town,” said Steve Trivett, mayor of the town of Ashland in Hanover County. If the General Assembly can simply step in and make troublesome towns vanish, he said, “this could set a precedent …[of] short-circuiting the citizens right out of it.”

State lawmakers insist Pound is a special situation — so profoundly troubled that there is almost nothing left to save. But just in case, they pledged to reconsider the charter — set to expire Nov. 1, 2023 — if the town shows signs of getting its act back together.

For Pound’s roughly 900 residents, that presents a dilemma: Take a stand, or let it go?

In a national climate of political division and loss of faith in institutions, Pound is pretty much a worst-case scenario of government gone wrong. Yet it also shows what is at stake when public systems are truly, literally threatened. For some, this is home, and working to defend the common good is worth a little risk and sacrifice. So Kennedy, 55, and a handful of others have decided to take a crack at rebuilding the town government from scratch.

Several volunteers, moved by their plight, are pitching in to help — such as Andrea G. Erard, a lawyer who serves as attorney for five towns around the state, including Ashland.

On a recent Wednesday night, Erard guided the council through a two-hour training session, via Zoom, on the basics of town government. Then she called Kennedy at home, and they spent another half-hour lamenting the endless list of problems.

“Well,” Erard said on the phone, and paused. “It’s gonna get better.”

Kennedy took a weary drag on her cigarette. “Well,” she said, “I’m praying for it.”

Tough times in The Pound

Along Main Street on a spring day — the surrounding mountains just beginning to blush with green and sprayed with purple redbud blossoms — there is only a lonely suggestion of the place Pound once was. In the 1940s, coal miners swarmed from nearby Kentucky to drink in the town’s 11 bars. There were department stores, parking meters and taxi cabs. Now most of the storefronts are empty, some just a facade in front of a collapsed roof.

Pound — some call it The Pound — has always been a tough place. It is said to have been the first area settled in Wise County in the 1700s, but was the last to incorporate as a town, in 1950. The origins of the name are cloudy but probably connected to the pounding mill that once stood along the river.

Terry Short, a former council member and Kennedy’s cousin, remembers helping his dad clear squatters out of the family’s motel when he was a grade-schooler — wielding a shotgun at age 11.

“Everybody in this area has fought for what they’ve got and struggled for what they’ve got,” said Short, 55.

Kennedy went to elementary school in the building that now serves as town hall (in between, it was a funeral parlor) and lives a short walk away, just past the Magic Spray carwash. She graduated from Pound High School, which is being torn down.

“It used to be a booming place here. Everybody got old and just died off,” said Ronnie Roberts, 67, who runs a small engine repair shop beside the former hardware store. He worked at the store for 30 years until it closed in the early 2000s.

“I’d like to see it do better, but I don’t know,” Roberts said, fixing a tractor tire. “They had so much trouble over there at town council.”

Sharp declines in coal-tax revenue have crippled many parts of Southwest Virginia, but Pound made things worse through poor management. Last year, the bottom fell out.

One of its most valuable assets, a multimillion-dollar wastewater treatment system, fell into such disrepair that the state ordered Pound to hand it over to Wise County’s water authority. A budget reckoning and personnel clashes led the town to fire its attorney, who was also a detective, and shutter the police department — which led to the evidence crisis. The cashier pleaded guilty to embezzling about $1,700.

But the deepest problem of all — the one that fueled all the rest — was that members of town council could not seem to stand one another. There were walkouts, lockouts, shouting matches and lawsuits.

By December 2020 — to take just one example — the town was three years behind on annual financial audits. It was five months past that year’s deadline to adopt a budget. Residents complained that the police department was gobbling up more than $380,000 of the town’s roughly $580,000 annual spending plan.

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On Dec. 7, three members of council joined more than 40 residents in filing a petition to oust Mayor Stacey Carson, whose long-term relationship with a council critic known as Chickenman had made her the object of ire. The next day, Carson convened a crowded public hearing on the budget, led the Pledge of Allegiance, then said the meeting had not been properly advertised and was illegal.

Angry council members told her to ask the town attorney. We don’t have a town attorney, Carson replied. Not true, council members said. The audience began to shout.

“I don’t need to talk to you since you have a petition against me right now,” Carson snapped at a council member, “so you can go ahead and step on outta here!”

The audience cheered, and the supposedly illegal meeting tumbled into chaos for another two hours.

Videos of Pound council meetings became tawdry municipal reality shows — people would tune in for the sheer cringeworthy spectacle.

“Sometimes you can only laugh,” said Trivett, the Ashland mayor, who learned of Pound’s plight from someone at church who is related to a council member. “But I thought, it’s a shame to find humor in things that any of us in our towns would find terrible. So they shouldn’t be a laughingstock.”

Kennedy and Short found little humor in what was going on. Kennedy had begun taking an interest in the council when her yard filled with sewage and made her husband sick. Her complaints were brushed aside, she said, but the problem cleared up when the county took over the water system and fixed a leak.

Short, a council member for a single term that ended in 2018, could not turn away from the place where his family had lived for generations. Retired on disability from the state highway department and caring for his elderly parents, Short began devoting almost all his time to monitoring the council and its problems — taking video of meetings, talking with members, trying to broker some kind of peace.

The cousins worked together last year on a campaign to get Kennedy elected to town council. “My husband said, ‘no, you ain’t doing that,’ ” said Kennedy, who has enough on her hands with a full-time job at Verizon and an elderly mother and sick friend to care for. But she and Short knocked on nearly every door in town seeking votes.

By the time Kennedy won her seat, the Wise County board of supervisors had gotten fed up with Pound’s antics. The town is part of the county, sharing its school system and constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and commonwealth’s attorney. The supervisors voted shortly before Election Day to ask the General Assembly to dissolve the town’s charter.

That threw Pound’s fate into the hands of one of the most powerful members of the General Assembly, House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), whose district covers part of Pound and whose family wields enormous influence in that part of the state.

“Those local officials failed to understand that the function of local government is to provide services, and safety, and it just wasn’t happening,” Kilgore said in an interview. “It just was not a good look for the town.”

When the legislature convened in January, Kilgore introduced a bill to dissolve the charter.

Kennedy and Short drove the six hours to Richmond to beg legislative committees not to pass it. State law sets out a process for annulling a charter, and residents are supposed to vote on it. Kennedy, a union organizer and lobbyist who has tussled with Kilgore, and Short, in his customary denim overalls, argued that killing the town would set a dangerous precedent.

A handful of lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, were sympathetic. But most deferred to Kilgore. The charter-killing bill passed by wide margins, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed it into law last month.

“I don’t think we’re setting a precedent,” Kilgore said. “This is a very, very rare occasion where the General Assembly would step in. We’re not going to step in when towns are arguing or there’s a disagreement. But when there’s no services, or paying bills … we need to step in.”

Kilgore made one concession: If he feels the town is making progress, he will come back next year and ask his colleagues to restore the charter.

“I want them to succeed,” he said. “I think this was a wake-up call.”

Fight on

The immediate impact was the opposite; even the threat of the Assembly’s action had thrown the town into a death spiral.

In Kennedy’s first meeting as a member, back in November, the new town attorney quit, two council members stormed out and 16 of the town’s roughly 24 businesses submitted a letter in which they refused to continue paying taxes.

“There is no real reason to make a payment to a town that is in the process of un-incorporating,” wrote the business owners, most of whom live outside town limits. They demanded a forensic audit to see whether past revenue had been mishandled.

By early this year, the council could not even meet because too few members were showing up. So one member, Clifton Cauthorne, took what he called the “kamikaze option” — he quit, dropping the council’s membership low enough that a local judge was required to step in and appoint three new members.

“I kind of forced their hand, because we were at a standstill,” Cauthorne said.

The task before the new council is huge. The town has no paid clerk/treasurer, no paid attorney and only a part-time police chief. Tax receipts and bills alike are piled in offices at town hall. No one is sure who owes taxes or how much revenue to expect for the coming year.

Kennedy spends Fridays and Saturdays at town hall, going through paperwork. She never knows what she might find when she opens a drawer. Once it was $20,000 in checks, another time a $15,000 unpaid bill for the town’s insurance policy.

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The state offers few, if any, formal resources to help towns such as Pound — no training for newly elected council members and no mechanism to flag problems or provide aid. For towns under 3,500 in population, there is no state requirement for audits or for conflict of interest disclosures by local officials. Pound’s audits were voluntary or, in some cases, to satisfy banks that had provided loans.

Next door in Lee County, the town of St. Charles has dwindled to fewer than 100 residents and stopped holding council elections. Kilgore sponsored a bill this year to rescind that charter, as well — noting that St. Charles was never incorporated by the General Assembly, but rather had a rare charter granted by a judge. As of July 1, St. Charles will become an unincorporated part of the county. No one is contesting.

Not everyone is convinced it is worth fighting to save Pound.

“Let it go back to the county,” said one former merchant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution over the deeply emotional subject. “We don’t have any benefits from the town.”

The Kingsport Times-News, a Tennessee newspaper that has chronicled Pound’s travails, proclaimed in an August editorial: “It’s time to abolish the town of Pound.”

Even those who would like to see it preserved are no longer sure that is possible.

“I don’t want to see my little town go away,” said David Williams, 59, who has owned a TV repair shop in Pound for nearly 30 years. He did not sign the no-tax pledge, but Williams said he can understand why some might want to surrender the charter.

“It’s a mess,” he said. “It’s a nice little community here, it just sorta fell apart since we don’t have the coal business we used to have.”

Others say there are practical reasons to fight. With mountain communities separated by geography and tradition, many in Pound express little faith in Wise County to look out for their interests. Exhibit A: the demolition of the local high school, which forced students to travel over the mountains to a new county school.

“They couldn’t care less what happens to the town of Pound,” said Harold Greer, 70, a retired retailer who now works part-time at Fielder’s Choice, an antiques/sporting goods/bargain shop in the ramshackle building that used to be the hardware store.

“If we lose [the charter], we lose the ability to control our own zoning and planning,” he said. An unincorporated community would be unable to stop the county from plopping down a big polluting industry, Greer said. As a town, “we control our own destiny.”

Lingering mistrust and a looming deadline

So sympathetic volunteers are lending a hand.

“They really do want to be a town, they just need some help to get back to being functional,” said Michelle Gowdy, executive director of the Virginia Municipal League. The VML has agreed to help chart a course forward, making connections with officials in other towns and counties who can lend expertise, such as attorney Erard.

Linda Meade, a retired town clerk, has volunteered to pitch in at her old job. Lawyer Greg Baker is stepping in temporarily as town attorney, free of charge. Nearing retirement and recovering from cancer, Baker, 62, said he feels obligated to help.

It’s rudimentary stuff. Four of the five council members are new, and all are shaky on parliamentary procedure. Call the roll, Baker reminds them at the start of April’s monthly meeting. No, you don’t need a second roll call after a public hearing. Make a motion. Now vote on the motion.

When bickering flares up, Baker — whose booming voice can drown out the whole room — cuts things off quickly. “Y’all sound like y’all got a lot of personal issues with each other,” he thundered at one point in the meeting. “I’m here for free. I’m gonna walk out that door. I’m tired of all this stuff.”

Baker knows the work to save the town will fail if the spirit fails. And that is where both he and Erard are uncertain, because elements of the mistrust that got the council into this mess still linger.

For the past few weeks, the central conflict has been between Kennedy and Carson, the mayor.

Pound’s mayor often served as its paid town manager, an arrangement not uncommon in small Virginia towns. But after Carson won the seat in 2020, no one seemed interested in letting her do both jobs.

Carson, 55 and originally from Kansas, said she feels like an outsider — slighted by the new council and stripped of power at every turn. To hold her ground, Carson seized on the issue that the businesses brought up when they refused to keep paying taxes: that Pound needs a forensic audit. It became her mantra at meetings.

Kennedy has argued that a forensic audit is impossible until the town catches up on the past three years of regular audits. That will take money, so they need the businesses to pay taxes again.

But they won’t pay taxes, Carson countered, until the audits reassure them that the money is being well spent.

And so, with a June 30 deadline looming to get a town budget passed, Kennedy and Carson have circled one another in stalemate.

Early this month, the council held a budget workshop. After only a few minutes, Carson and Kennedy began to clash over the audit. Back and forth, for nearly an hour, until finally Kennedy had had enough.

“I think we need a few minutes,” she said, then took a drink from her water bottle, stood and walked out.

“Okay,” Carson said. “We will recess until 8:30.”

A few months ago, the meeting might have ended there, another breakdown, another walkout.

But after 10 minutes or so, Kennedy came back. The session resumed.

At the May 24 monthly council meeting, though, it was Carson who walked out. She abruptly resigned, issuing a written statement citing lack of respect. “Thank you guys,” she said at the meeting, gathering her belongings and rising from her seat. “I wish you guys the best.”

Her departure could clear the way for Kennedy to run the show. Or it could be another setback. Council members aren’t sure what comes next, except that they still need to get a budget passed by the end of next month.

And so they go on, step by painful step, attempting to rebuild their town as the clock continues to tick.