APN’s Top 5 Best (and Worst) of 2021

Every year, APN reviews the top 5 best and worst news stories we covered (or should have covered) that year. Since my focus is on local government and to a lesser extent the state government, that’s the focus of the lists below as well.

Here are the top 5 worst, and then the best, things that happened in local and state politics this year, in my opinion:

Top 5 Worst

Dishonorable mention: Too many traffic fatalities

There were 24 people killed by cars and other vehicles in Athens in 2021 (another fatality happened after the publication of the linked Banner-Herald article, which lists 23), making it “the most dangerous year on the roads locally in recent memory.” The trend of elevated traffic fatalities started during the coronavirus pandemic and it will likely continue into 2022. So be careful out there! You could also consider taking Athens Transit instead of driving. It’s free, and over 60 times safer for passengers than driving a car.

#5 – ACC Commissioners invite gerrymandering of commission districts

Summary: Three commissioners voted no (or abstained) on approving a new set of commission district maps, thereby inviting the state legislature to cut Athenians out of the redsitricting process entirely.

Everyone knows that state legislatures are notorious for gerrymandering political districts as a way of enhancing their own power at the expense of the public. Politicians of both parties do it, because it guarantees them safe seats and minimizes the influence that voters can have on elections. And from a Machiavellian perspective, this is perfectly reasonable. Why give voters power if you don’t have to? 

The Republican-dominated Georgia legislature has been especially bad about this lately. That’s because the demographics of our state are changing to favor Democrats, and Republicans want to hold on to their seats. Not surprisingly, Democrats across the state have spoken out strongly against this Republican power grab.

At least, most Democrats have, but we have three Democrats here on the ACC Commission who have not spoken out. Quite the opposite, they even voted recently to encourage Republican gerrymandering of our commission districts! Commissioners Allison Wright, Mike Hamby and Ovita Thornton all failed to vote in favor of a proposed new map of commission districts when they knew that any ‘no’ vote would be interpreted by the state legislature as a reason to create an entirely new map.

The state legislature’s new map, if they decide to create one, could put outspoken progressive commissioners in the same district, forcing them to either run against each other or to step down from their seat. It could throw the 2022 local election into chaos as voters are moved into different districts suddenly just months before the election.

These three commissioners struggled to come up with reasons to defend their ‘no’ votes (or their abstention in Thornton’s case). For example, Wright objected to the map on the basis that one of the streets in her district was used as a district boundary. Of course, this is quite common and at times unavoidable, which Wright knew very well. Thornton instead used a different excuse – that not enough time for public input was allowed. I tend to agree with her. But she knew that if the vote failed, the maps would be created by the legislature with zero input from the public. How is that better?

In an equally aggravating, although perhaps wiser move, Hamby simply said nothing at all during the entire discussion before voting ‘no.’

You might be wondering the real reason for their ‘no’ votes. Why not just vote to approve the map? 

The fight over these maps was about the same thing commissioners have been fighting over all year – power.

Hamby was once the most powerful ACC Commissioner, but now he’s essentially irrelevant on the body. He may be the leader of a minority faction, but with Mayor Kelly Girtz siding with progressives on most issues, he’s been sidelined. In his place, the commission’s left bloc has come to prominence ever since the (admittedly undemocratic) election of Commissioner Jesse Houle.

Hamby, Wright and Thornton have even stopped coming to some meetings, a fact which Commissioner Tim Denson recently mentioned on Twitter. That’s caused problems with quorum, which has delayed the start of meetings.

Anyway, the final vote ended up 7-2 (Hamby and Wright voted ‘no,’ and Thornton abstained), meaning the commission did pass a new set of maps that are very similar to the ones we have now. That means nothing bad has happened yet. It’s still possible the legislature will rubber stamp the commission’s suggested map out of disinterest. They may have bigger fish to fry this legislative session. For this reason, this item makes my top 5 list, but just barely. Let’s move on to some worse things!

#4 – The disaster in the ACC Auditor’s office

Summary: The ACC Office of Operational Analysis is completely empty going into 2022 and someone has to take the blame for it. While it’s not really his fault, at the end of the day the buck stops with Mayor Kelly Girtz.

I’ve written a number of times on this topic, so I’ll stay focused on what I feel is the biggest problem in this whole fiasco: the ACC Office of Operational Analysis has been a complete disaster this year. While former ACC Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox did manage to complete one audit and she made a good effort on completing another, she’d had those on her plate since October 2019 and January 2018, respectively.

I have to say it – Maddox was a failure as internal auditor. And for those in close contact with Office of Operational Analysis staff, this had been obvious for years. Warning signs were present as early as 2016 or even before. So, why did Mayor Nancy Denson and the commission at that time refuse to do anything about this problem? And why did Mayor Kelly Girtz fail to act in 2020 even as Maddox was driving away the last employee from her office?

To be fair, the extent of the problem may not have been clear to Denson. And Girtz was dealing with Maddox’s accusation of discrimination, which required an in-depth investigation and delayed her eventual termination. 

It’s understandable why this unfolded the way it did. But still, residents of Athens deserve an efficient government held accountable by a competent auditor. The auditor has no other supervisor, so the mayor and commission must act decisively when it’s clear there is a problem. They failed to do that in this case. As the 2022 local election heats up next year, voters may rightly ask why the Office of Operational Analysis is sitting completely empty. Let’s hope they’re able to hire a competent and effective auditor soon.

#3 – Kemp signs voter suppression bill, rolls back bail reform, fails to expand Medicaid

Summary: Here’s a list of some of the worst things that happened in the state legislature:

Governor Brian Kemp and the Republican-controlled legislature doubled-down on their voter suppression efforts this year with SB 202, a bill that has been widely criticized nationwide. Next year, if you find it more difficult to drop off your absentee ballot, if you don’t get a ballot request form in the mail or if you get arrested for giving someone water while they’re waiting in line to vote, SB 202 is the reason. 

As bad as that is, the worst aspects of the law won’t be visible to most voters. SB 202 removes the Secretary of State as the chair of the State Elections Board, replacing him with a political appointee. It also allows the state legislature to take over local boards of elections, replacing them with one person, another political appointee, who gets to decide how our votes are counted (or not counted, as the case may be).

Kemp also began overturning the legacy of his predecessor, Governor Nathan Deal, by reversing Deal’s accomplishments on bail reform. Cash bail will now be required for some misdemeanors in Georgia. This will have serious implications for some offenders who don’t have the money to bail themselves out; it only increases the chances that they’ll get stuck in a prison system that emphasizes punishment more than rehabilitation. With public sentiment tilting increasingly in favor of reform, this also seems like a political mistake that, in a democratic society, would have electoral repercussions. If only we lived in one of those societies!

The last terrible thing Kemp did this year was fail to expand Medicaid, which has been a no-brainer for Georgia since the Obama years. Instead of doing a full expansion, he asked the federal government for a waiver which would allow Georgia to give Medicaid only to people who were working or volunteering at least 80 hours a month. The Biden administration approved the general concept of the waiver, but denied Kemp’s specific request for a work requirement.

This gives Kemp a choice in 2022: allow Georgians to receive Medicaid assistance even if they are unemployed, or scrap the whole waiver idea completely. He could also just expand Medicaid the normal way as originally conceived under the Affordable Care Act, but that would make too much sense.

#2 – Homelessness and low wages endemic while housing costs skyrocket

Summary: Athens has experienced a major problem with homelessness this year which has been compounded by a lack of affordable housing and the low wages paid by most employers, even those who should be serving the public interest.

Athens has an increasing problem with a lack of affordable housing and the related problem of homelessness. This has become obvious to anyone walking down Willow Street. However, people experiencing homelessness are just the tip of the iceberg; there’s a much larger group of people, including families with children, who have nowhere to stay except on a friend’s couch (or at the Athens-Area Homeless Shelter).

My personal opinion – in a society that views housing as an investment opportunity and wages as a burden to be minimized, these sorts of problems are inevitable and they can only be solved by government intervention.

Our local government is certainly trying to make a difference, even if they aren’t powerful enough to solve the problem on their own. In the past few months, an eviction prevention program championed by Commissioner Tim Denson was finally approved after a year-long battle and an official homeless camp championed by Commissioner Jesse Houle is also getting started.

But look – commissioners understand that these are inadequate half-measures that will not fully address the issue. I anticipate that we’ll be seeing more from city hall about this in 2022. Even so, the commission is prohibited by Georgia law from enacting any kind of rent control. Likewise, they are prevented from raising the minimum wage for private employers. That means that we’re subject to the whims of the market for things as basic as shelter and the money to buy other necessities and there’s not much we can do about it.

We can’t expect small business owners, many of whom are also struggling, to voluntarily pay their workers a living wage (which, at this point, is $15 an hour in Athens). After all, businesses exist to make a profit, not to provide quality employment. What we should be able to expect is that public institutions (which are the biggest employers in Athens, by the way) pay nothing less than a living wage. The ACC government is doing their part by raising all workers, even part-time and seasonal ones, to a minimum rate of $15 an hour. This is an example the others should follow.

UGA has begun to make steps in this direction, by announcing a series of wage increases this year, which is certainly welcome news. But their new minimum hiring rate of $27,500 is unfortunately below a living wage for a full-time worker, and temporary employees can still be paid significantly less. The institutional logic that could justify this while paying administrators six-figures escapes me.

Faring even worse are workers at the ACC library and in the Clarke County School District. Some workers at the library make as little as $8 to $10 an hour, a shamefully-low wage. In the school district, things are only marginally better. Their lowest-paid workers make between $9.90 and $12.46 an hour. While these workers may be boosted to $12.50 next year, this is still unacceptably low for a public institution, which should have higher standards.

It’s time we held our public institutions accountable for paying their workers so little. Unlike our problem with affordable housing, the problem of low wages is one we can actually do something about, at least for Athens’ biggest employers.

#1 – Deaths from coronavirus continue to mount

Summary: COVID-19 remains as devastating as ever as our hospitals and healthcare workers have been stretched to the breaking point. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon and we should act like it.

COVID-19 was my choice for worst thing that happened in 2020 (an easy call). As bored as we all are of this story, I don’t feel I have any choice but to put it at the top spot again this year. It’s certainly not any less of an emergency than it was in 2020. 181 Athenians have died from COVID-19 at the time of writing and most of these were in 2021, not 2020. To top it off, many more deaths seem likely in coming months as the deadly new Omicron variant spreads explosively across Georgia.

You might be questioning my use of the word ‘deadly’ in that last sentence. Don’t! Omicron will almost certainly end up as or even more deadly than previous variants, despite its milder symptoms. Due to its higher infection rate, more people in total will wind up with serious symptoms, up to and including death, even if most experience it as a fairly mild sickness. Our hospitals and healthcare workers are already stretched to the breaking point and won’t easily be able to deal with the new, even larger wave of infection headed their way.

We are still in the middle of a true healthcare crisis. Get your booster shot (or get vaccinated if you haven’t been). Social distance. Wear a mask. 

I know we’re all tired of this. But this disease isn’t going away yet. We’ve got to do whatever we can do to slow the spread, because people’s lives are at stake.

Top 5 Best

#5 – Police Oversight Board established

Summary: Civilian oversight of police is on the way, but will it mean anything? The fight isn’t over yet.

Civilian oversight of police has been a top progressive priority since shortly after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. In Athens, the commission finally passed an ordinance this year to provide oversight – the ACC Public Safety Oversight Board will convene its first meeting in 2022. 

This is a great victory for the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, so why am I not more excited? Why is this #5 and not lower on the list?

Simply put, we’re not done fighting yet.

It’s important that progressives volunteer to serve on this board and actively push for it to be better. Otherwise, it will probably end up completely useless at best or a regurgitator of copaganda at worst. Every requirement suggested by Mayor Kelly Girtz’s task force that would have pushed it towards effectiveness, regardless of the body’s make-up, was taken out in committee.

Essentially, the commission was faced with a crucial decision about police oversight – and they punted. Progressives will have to pick up the ball and run with it in 2022 if they want the oversight board to be worth anything.

Lastly, in fairness to ACCPD, I should say that the other reason this isn’t #2 or #3 is that our police department is actually much better here than in many other places. We simply don’t see police executing Black people with impunity in Athens (at least not since the killing of Edward Wright). This matters a great deal. Let’s hope the Public Safety Oversight Board can keep it that way and make our police department even better than it already is.

#4 – Airbnbs and VRBOs taxed, Paid parental leave granted

Summary: It’s only fair to mention the good things that Republicans in the state legislature sometimes do, if I’m going to list all the bad things. Here’s why taxing Airbnbs is important, and for paid parental leave, I’ll do something I rarely do — thank a Republican by name.

Some good things happened in the state legislature this year, in addition to the bad stuff that we hear a lot about. For example, Airbnbs are VRBOs will have to pay the state’s $5 hotel / motel fee for all short term rentals going forward. They’ll also have to pay Athens’ local hotel / motel tax of 7%. This is really great news, as it saves the local government the time-intensive work of tracking all these short term rentals and trying to collect. 

Airbnbs are part of the reason for our affordable housing woes, so it’s important that they be taxed at the same rate as other hotels.

Athens’ own state representative Houston Gaines also did something good this year by sponsoring a bill which would give three weeks of paid leave to all state employees, including teachers, following birth, adoption or fostering of a child. It doesn’t quite make up for everything else Gaines, a Republican, has done over the years but I believe in giving credit where credit is due.

Thanks for your work on this, Houston!

#3 – Anti-discrimination ordinance passed, commission established

Summary: Efforts to fight discrimination are underway in Athens.

In another significant victory for the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, the long-discussed Human Relations Commission was given the go-ahead, and a comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance was passed to go with it.

By themselves, these are small victories, but together I hope they mark the beginning of a new era of equity and dialog across the divisions of race, gender identity and sexual orientation. Unlike the police oversight board discussed above, the worst that can happen here is an ineffective new commission, whereas the best case scenario could be something truly beautiful.

As always, engagement from residents will make the difference between these two scenarios. We’ll have to see how this develops, but to me, these victories are a very positive sign.

#2 – The Linnentown Resolution

Summary: The Linnentown Resolution was a huge deal. It’s the first attempt at providing reparations for the effects of white supremacy in the entire state of Georgia.

The Human Relations Commission mentioned above will help facilitate dialog around inequities, which is an important step forward. But going further with actual reparations for those affected by white supremacy – that’s where the rubber meets the road.

That’s why the passing of the Linnentown Resolution was such a big deal and why it gained attention on the national level. It was pushed forward by former residents of Linnentown like Hattie Whitehead and Geneva Johnson and it was eventually accepted by the commission this year.

This resolution came just after the first official apology from the local government for “urban renewal,” a process that displaced many Black families in the 1960s from all over Athens and elsewhere. The resolution also includes an apology for acts of “institutionalized white racism and terrorism” specific to this one neighborhood. It calls for an on-site “Wall of Recognition” (which has since been expanded to a “Walk of Recognition”), historic designation for the remaining Linnentown homes and reparations for the families who were affected.

I should note that the term ‘reparations’ here might not mean what you’re thinking. 

The gratuities clause in the Georgia Constitution prevents reparations from taking the form of direct payments. Instead, the Justice and Memory Commission, chaired by Hattie Whitehead, will give recommendations to the mayor during each budget cycle for how the local government could spend money in a way that makes up for the harm they caused back in the 60s. This year, the Justice and Memory Commission recommended paying all government workers $15 an hour, to which the commission agreed as I mentioned before.

Unlike the local government, the University of Georgia has refused to issue any kind of apology to former Linnentown residents. They have also refused to allow the Walk of Recognition to be located on university property. That’s okay, it’s moving forward either way. The current plan is for it to be located on public rights-of-way just a stone’s throw from where Linnentown used to stand. It will be erected in 2022, and you’ll probably want to attend the ceremony! It’s an event which might wind up in the history books someday. 

To keep up with the Walk of Recognition’s progress, you can follow the Linnentown Mosaic Project on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

#1 – ACC Commissioners pass the most progressive budget in history

Summary: Commissioners passed a transformative budget for fiscal year 2022 in June but it didn’t get the attention it deserves in my opinion. Like Biden’s Build Back Better plan, there’s so much packed in it that I feel most people don’t realize how good it actually is. Let’s go over the pieces one at a time:

Living wages

The commission raised every single ACC government employee to a minimum of $15 an hour (except for themselves). They didn’t do a study first, they didn’t wait to adjust for wage compression, they just did it because they believe that every worker deserves a living wage, period. During the Athens for Everyone years, myself and other living wage advocates were told that this was impossible and that the problem of wage compression had to be solved first. 

Well, once commissioners have real courage behind their convictions, apparently they can do the impossible. 

Even by itself, this wage increase alone demonstrates the revolutionary intent hidden in this budget. In passing it, the commission made a statement that maybe only a few heard – they proclaimed that no one will have to accept poverty wages any longer if they can prevent it.

Zero-fare transit

I’ve advocated for zero-fare transit for a while, because it’s the only fare structure that makes financial sense in a town like Athens. Those who still support fares have to make the difficult argument that a less efficient method for revenue generation is better than a more-efficient one. Fare collection has a high overhead cost, and even worse, the money raised comes from people taking the socially responsible transportation option (transit) and who are generally less wealthy to boot. Why would we want to do that?

Fares work against both social and environmental justice. They only benefit society when the transit system is stretched to a breaking point and we need to start putting up barriers to entry, which is not the case in Athens.

With this year’s budget, fares on Athens Transit were reduced to zero, and they’ll probably stay that way. It’s a huge step forward for our transit system. It also sends a message that we’re serious about fighting climate change and the effects of poverty at the same time.

Reimagining police

It’s become clear that the idea of diverting money from the police department to support various community needs has been a losing battle. We’re not “defunding” police in Athens anytime soon. What we can do instead is create an alternative to police (which has worked in places like Eugene, Oregon) and slowly shift more and more responsibility in that direction. Once police have less on their plate, especially the things they weren’t even trained to do like providing social services, then it should be non-controversial to either remove funding or to invest in things like rehabilitation and prison reform instead.

That’s the plan anyway, and the commission took the first step this year by setting up Athens’ first alternative crisis response team. This team is similar to the Jerry NeSmith co-responder units that pair a police officer with a mental health professional, but it removes the police officer. The new unit, which consists of a clinician, a medical professional and a peer specialist, will respond to some 911 calls in place of police in 2022.

If the program succeeds (i.e. if everyone stays reasonably safe and more people are able to get the help they need), look for it to be expanded in future years.

Studying disparities

The budget also included money to study racial and gender disparities in ACC government contract awards. But I know – the commission funds studies all the time, and they’re usually useless, so why is this important? The difference here is that the commission can’t act to correct these disparities, if they exist, without doing the study, as that would be illegal. Funding a study like this is signaling their intention to take action as soon as possible to try and get ACC government contracts to a wider range of people. The idea is to take action, not to do research, and this could be a really big deal once the study is completed.

Odds and ends

Also included in the budget were things like government support for the Athens-Area Homeless Shelter, youth development programs, a pay increase for public defenders and an environmental study along Pittard Road.

A problem on the horizon

The only problem with this budget is a potential funding crunch that could be on the way; commissioners may have broad agreement on what they want to accomplish, but they don’t agree on how they want to fund it. Federal funding from the infrastructure deal and the American Rescue Plan will help, but eventually commissioners will need to decide whether to cut certain programs or to raise taxes. They’ll only be able to delay this debate for so long, because at the current pace they will eventually run out of money.

Onward to 2022! It should be an exciting year, hopefully with less COVID (crosses fingers). Either way, at least we’re sure to see a ton of political ads this year, I can’t wait!

Happy new year, everyone!

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