The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Town of Pound emerges from death sentence in Virginia Assembly

Leabern Kennedy, center, the vice mayor of Pound, Va., meets with state Sen. Todd E. Pillion (R-Washington). (Gregory S. Schneider/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Leabern Kennedy spent a year working to prevent the General Assembly from killing her hometown, and she was finally at the Capitol this week to get the verdict.

She had driven more than six hours from Pound, the hamlet in Wise County in far southwestern Virginia where Kennedy serves as vice mayor. First stop: The office of House Majority Leader Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), who sponsored a bill in 2022 to revoke Pound’s charter over problems that had left the local government barely functioning.

Pound’s troubles were so deep that council meetings regularly turned into shouting matches. Every town employee had quit or been fired; the police department was disbanded; local businesses refused to keep paying taxes.

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Kilgore’s bill — which passed the House and Senate and was signed into law last year by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) — set Nov. 1, 2023, as the date when the charter would dissolve. Lawmakers said they’d rescind the death sentence in this year’s General Assembly session if the town got its act together. That seemed like a long shot.

As The Washington Post reported last year, local government advocates warned that the action set a bad precedent — the state swooping in to eliminate a town over the objections of residents.

And Kennedy led a group of townspeople who wanted to fight. It was, after all, their home, with a long and colorful history and a strong sense of separateness from the Wise County seat across the mountains.

So over the past year, that group — with help from the Virginia Municipal League and a local lawyer — slogged through a painful process of putting their government back together.

They hired a part-time town clerk and two part-time police officers. They hired someone to pick up trash. Fixed streetlights. Figured out how much debt the town had and paid that off. Adopted a budget. Elected a new mayor.

Along the way, the town had to cope with major flooding that hit the Appalachians last summer. Downtown was inundated.

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So many neighbors pitched in to help each other that the town had more food, clothes, mops and dehumidifiers than it needed. “We sent a lot of supplies across to Kentucky because that area was hit much worse than we were,” Kennedy said.

Greg Baker, a lawyer from nearby Dickenson County who sometimes practices law with Kilgore, donated his time as town attorney. The Virginia Municipal League held seminars to teach council members the basics of running a meeting and operating a town hall.

Kennedy spent much of that time wondering whether Kilgore was watching, wondering what would meet his standard of success.

Kilgore never visited, but he kept tabs from afar. By early January he had seen enough: He introduced a bill to restore the charter. It passed the House unanimously last week but still had to get through the Senate.

When Kennedy finally got to see Kilgore this week, they shook hands. She told him how worried she’d been.

“You didn’t take my word for it?” Kilgore said. “I told you if everything goes good I’d put in a bill to reinstate the charter.”

“I’m not a very trusting person, Delegate,” Kennedy replied.

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“I did have a few people say you’re still not providing services,” Kilgore said. Kennedy shot back: “But we are. We hired someone to do mowing, and we’re fixing streetlights …”

“Things like that take time,” Kilgore said.

Kennedy said she wouldn’t be comfortable until the Senate had also passed the bill. Later that morning, she visited Sen. Todd E. Pillion (R-Washington), who carried that chamber’s version. It had cleared a committee vote just that morning but had yet to reach the Senate floor.

Pillion said he thought the bill was on track to pass.

“It’s been a lot of work, I won’t lie,” Kennedy said.

“Has all the money been finally accounted for?” Pillion asked.

“People aren’t lining up to do our audits,” Kennedy said. “We’re working to get that done.”

Pillion said he had gotten an email over the weekend from a resident who was unhappy that the town might get its charter back, preferring that the county absorb it. But the senator said he had faith in the town council.

“This, I hope, is for the greater good,” he said.

“Absolutely,” Kennedy said. “It’s a different animal now.”

On Thursday, after Kennedy had made the drive back to Pound, Pillion’s bill came up on the floor of the Senate. The local government is “on the straight and narrow now, and the town of Pound is looking better than ever,” Pillion assured his fellow lawmakers.

The bill passed, 40-0.

Sen. Ghazala F. Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) raised her arms in celebration when the bill passed an earlier, procedural vote. Though from a far different part of the state, Hashmi had opposed the measure last year to strip the charter. “We weren’t following policy,” she said in an interview, referring to the usual process that requires a town to make such a request itself. “I got many, many emails from citizens in Pound asking that we not go down that route because it wasn’t fair to them.”

Now that both chambers have passed measures to restore the charter, the bills must ultimately wind up in the hands of the governor. A spokeswoman for Youngkin declined to comment on whether he would sign them, saying only that he reviews all legislation that comes to his desk. But neither bill had opposition in the legislature, so it would be extraordinary for Youngkin to object.

Kennedy, who couldn’t watch live video of the vote because she was working at her Verizon call center job, learned of the outcome from a reporter. She felt “relief that we’re somewhat done,” she said, noting that the bills aren’t signed yet.

Without the threat of dissolution hanging over their heads, council members can move ahead with next steps: Getting full-time police officers, for instance, and pursuing grants and economic development projects.

“Our hands have been tied so it was hard to move forward,” Kennedy said.

The year of struggle has been worth it, she added. It proved to lawmakers that Pound deserves to exist.

“I didn’t doubt that we would be able to accomplish everything they wanted us to accomplish,” she said. “I guess my doubt was, would the legislators do what was promised, knowing that we were putting in the work?”

As of Thursday, they did.