Hopewell Council members write letter to Legislature asking to reject ‘financial distress’ bill.

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RICHMOND – A majority of Hopewell City Council members oppose bills from their state legislators sparked by a contentious dispute between the city and the Youngkin administration over state interference in Hopewell’s finances.

Five of the seven council members sent a letter Tuesday to the House and Senate committees examining legislation related to municipalities. In that letter, council members said the proposals “usurp elected local government authority” and give the governor powers not spelled out in the Virginia Constitution.

The bills from Del. Carey E. Queener, a Chesterfield County Republican and Sen. Lashrx Airedthe Democratic state of Petersburg — whose legislative district includes Hopewell — will give governors emergency powers to appoint CFOs to take over budget work in a local district experiencing fiscal pressures if that district is “either unwilling or unable to comply” with recommendations issued by the state to correct problems. Money This intervention can only happen if the district fails to submit annual audits required by the state, giving Virginia’s auditor of public accounts discretion to declare financial distress.

Del. Carey Coyner, R-Chesterfield County, left, and Sen. Lasrichi Aird, D-Petersburg, introduced legislation that would create a process for the state to intervene in the management of a district that has been declared financially distressed.  The bills stem from a 2023 confrontation between Hopewell and Youngkin management over Hopewell's mishandled books.

Hopewell has not submitted an audit to the state since 2015.

Last year, a majority of the council rejected Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration’s attempts to help right the financial wrongs. The administration paid for an external audit of Hopewell’s books and made recommendations for assistance. This refusal prompted one administration official to refer to Hopewell’s finances as a “fifth alarm fire.”

Meanwhile, Hopewell signed a $1.85 million agreement with Robert Pope’s Group to establish departmental operations and protocols, things both Pope’s group and the state noted had been invisible in Hopewell for many years. One of the most common complaints concerns the lack of uniformity in how citizens’ payments are entered into the system. Staff and some council members attributed this to the lack of training on the system from previous city administrations.

The letter – signed by Deputy Mayor Yasmin Gore and councilors Janice Denton, Michael Harris, Dominic Holloway and Brenda Pelham – said Coyner and Aird’s proposals were too vague about what localities were and were not able to do before the state got involved. She also objected to published reports attributed to Coyner that the current Hopewell government was too inexperienced or too resistant to deal with the problems properly.

“Explanations of ‘unwillingness, inability, or ‘compliance’ with respect to potential directives used to justify intervention are subjective and vague,” the letter said. Council members claimed the bills give the governor “the power to undermine duly elected officials who have differing views on how to performance of their duties” and the right to “control” the localities.

“These bills disenfranchise voters and violate state laws and local charters by defeating the purpose of local elected officials,” the letter said.

The letter noted the progress that has been made in reconciling Hopewell’s books of accounts since Pope’s group joined the group last October. In its latest report, the group said that it was able to complete audits in the period from 2015 to 2019, and was close to completing work on the 2020 audit, and that the remaining operations are in the starting gate.

Council members want the bills’ sponsors to withdraw the legislation and request a state study to determine best practices for partnering between the state and stressed localities.

Mayor Johnny Partin and Ward 1 Councilor Rita Joyner did not sign the letter because they both support the bills. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted Partin as calling it “great legislation” that would help struggling districts like Hopewell.

Coyner’s version of the bill was scheduled to be heard Thursday morning in the House Subcommittee on Counties, Cities and Towns. I pulled it from the agenda after receiving the letter and placed it on the committee calendar for February 1.

Aird’s bill will be heard Monday morning in the Senate Local Government Committee.

Messages left for both lawmakers requesting comment on the letter have not yet been responded to.

How we got here

Because it has not submitted state-required audits for the past eight years, Hopewell has drawn the attention of both the state auditor of public accounts and the Yongkin administration. Last May, state Finance Secretary Stephen Cummings brought an independent auditing firm to a City Council meeting where council members were given a list of 27 recommendations to straighten out the city’s financial controls.

Some council members disagreed with state interference in their financial affairs and essentially told Cummings so. They said that the state brings them proposals but does not provide any assistance in implementing them.

Three weeks later, Cummings returned to the council, saying he had approval from Youngkin and the General Assembly finance committees to bring in staff to help. That assistance came with the caveat that the council would not make a move to delay replacing City Manager Marsh Altman — under whom council members said financial problems intensified — who resigned to take the role of city manager in Petersburg. Instead, the state wanted Hopewell to appoint an executive with experience in correcting finances and allow interim City Manager Dr. Concetta Manker to work alongside that executive.

However, by then, a majority of the board had decided they wanted to give Manker the full-time position. Therefore, they once again rejected the state’s offer.

But this time, Cummings wasn’t going to go quietly. He took the time to lecture the council about what they could face if they don’t follow the state’s advice.

“It’s a five-alarm fire that has been burning in my mind at the five-alarm level for a long time,” Cummings told council members at the time. “And it’s become a reality in this environment. I don’t think people really feel like it’s a house on fire. This can’t continue.”

The majority did not budge. Nearly two months after Cummings commented about the financial picture, the council voted 4-3 to remove Manker’s temporary sign.

Bill Atkinson (he/him/her) is an award-winning journalist who covers breaking news, government and politics. You can reach him at batkinson@progress-index.com or on X (formerly Twitter) at @BAtkinson_PI.

This article originally appeared on the Progress Index: Hopewell council members: Financial distress bill could ‘usurp’ local authority

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