2022 Local / Nonpartisan Election Voter Guide

Athens, Georgia’s local election is the same date as the statewide primary — May 24.

In this article, APN will break down candidates of interest to Athens voters, providing information and analysis to help you decide who to vote for.

You should know that APN takes a progressive perspective on news and events. Depending on the candidates or issues involved, there could also be non-ideological reasons our perspective might be skewed. Therefore, we feel we have a responsibility to disclose potential conflicts of interest, which we do in the appropriate sections. Finally, you should know that this guide is not intended as a comprehensive list of candidates and races. For that, check out our candidates page here.

Before examining this guide, you may wish to first view your sample ballot at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov so you know which candidates you have the option to vote for.

Table of Contents

Georgia Supreme Court
Mayor of Athens-Clarke County
Commission, District 1

Commission, District 3
Commission, District 5
Commission, District 7
Board of Education, District 1
Board of Education, District 5
Board of Education, District 9

TSPLOST referendum

Georgia Supreme Court

Verda Colvin and Veronica Brinson
Justice Verda Colvin (left) and challenger Veronica Brinson (right)

Governor Brian Kemp appointed Justice Verda Colvin to the Georgia Supreme Court last year to fill the vacancy left when former Chief Justice Harold Melton retired. Colvin, a Democrat, might seem a strange appointment for a Republican like Kemp, but perhaps he simply thought she was the best candidate for the job. Senior Judge David Sweat told APN that Colvin is “a judicial leader” who has undertaken several court improvement projects since she has become a Supreme Court Justice.

Either way, challenger Veronica Brinson hasn’t really distinguished herself from Colvin in any major ways, so I can’t offer a justification for why you shouldn’t vote for the more experienced candidate here.

Vote for Colvin if you want the more experienced candidate to continue serving in this office.
Vote for Brinson if you can’t stand voting for someone appointed by Kemp.

Mayor of Athens-Clarke County

Mayoral candidates
Mayor Kelly Girtz (top left) and challengers Mara Zúñiga (top right), Pearl Hall, Bennie Coleman III, Fred Moorman and Mykeisha Ross (bottom row, left to right)

After a highly successful first term, Mayor Kelly Girtz must have been surprised to see not one but five candidates lining up to challenge his re-election. Fortunately for him, only one has a chance to beat him.

Mara Zúñiga has been attending city hall meetings with fellow Republicans for about a year now. When she speaks up, it’s normally to berate Girtz and progressive commissioners for things like creating a sanctioned homeless camp or approving a downtown public restroom. She has no experience in government beyond serving on two Local School Governance Teams, but she’ll presumably have the support of most Athens Republicans and Athens Clean and Safe PAC which makes her a strong competitor. However, she may struggle to earn the votes of enough independents and Democrats to win on May 24.

Zúñiga’s path to victory rests on whether the remaining four candidates can siphon enough votes away from Girtz to force a runoff (which happens if no candidate earns >50% of the vote on election day). If that happens, she will have a real shot at becoming our next mayor, and would arguably be the furthest right candidate to ever hold that office.

Girtz, on the other hand, will have to hope that his remarkable record of accomplishment will be enough to win re-election, whether on election day or in a runoff with Zúñiga. Democrats and progressives in particular are likely to line up behind him due to his support for progressive initiatives like zero-fare bus service, 100% renewable energy, affordable housing, the historic Linnentown Resolution and raising the wages of all county workers to at least $15 an hour.

Vote for Girtz if you are a progressive, a Democrat or are in any way left of center. You should also vote for Girtz if you are an independent or even a Republican who wants the most qualified and knowledgeable candidate to win.

Vote for Zúñiga if you are a Republican or a conservative who has been angered by Girtz’s progressive policies as mayor.

None of the other four candidates are qualified to be mayor. They have shown a lack of understanding of what the role entails and some, like Mykeisha Ross, have actively spread misinformation during their campaigns (for example, the mayor cannot appoint the school superintendent, regardless of what Ross says). If elected, Ross, Hall, Coleman and Moorman would all have immense learning curves.

UPDATE (5/2): Bennie Coleman has officially withdrawn from the mayor’s race. His name will still be on the ballot, but votes for him will not count.

Disclosure: Girtz donated $50 to APN in January.

Commission, District 1

District 1 candidates
Commissioner Patrick Davenport (left) and challenger Audrey Hughes (right)

Commissioner Patrick Davenport was first elected as part of the progressive wave that swept Athens in 2018, but has since been an independent voice on the commission, sometimes siding with moderates and other times progressives. He’s being challenged by science teacher Audrey Hughes, a fairly conservative Democrat whose campaign focuses on getting more resources for the eastside and lowering property taxes. She is perhaps slightly to the right of Davenport, who has also sounded fiscally conservative at times as commissioner.

On the other hand, Davenport is decidedly progressive when it comes to living wages and promoting cooperative businesses (he shares ownership in Peachy Green Clean Cooperative himself). Hughes is equally progressive when it comes to protecting the environment.

Vote for Davenport if you care more about living wages or cooperative businesses than the environment. You should also vote for Davenport if you don’t want to disturb the balance of power on the commission, which is currently held by progressives.

Vote for Hughes if you want to push the commission to lower property taxes, or if you are overly concerned about Davenport’s arrest for DUI, for which he plead guilty and received a sentence of community service. Hughes could also be a good choice for those who care more about the environment than living wages.

Commission, District 3

District 3
Asia Thomas (left) and Tiffany Taylor (right)

At first glance, Asia Thomas and Tiffany Taylor might seem like very similar candidates. For example, they’re both millennial Black women running on platforms of youth development, ending gun violence and civic engagement. But Thomas has seemed the more polished and professional of the two on the campaign trail, and she places a stronger emphasis on entrepreneurship and economic development. On the other hand, Taylor is the more progressive of the two. Taylor has focused her campaign on affordable housing and economic justice for low-wage workers, while also promoting youth entrepreneurship.

Vote for Thomas if you want the candidate who appears more professional and comfortable in the role. Thomas is also a good choice for those who care more about promoting economic development than fighting for affordable housing (although both candidates care about all of these issues).

Vote for Taylor if you want the more progressive candidate with a stronger focus on economic justice than economic development, and don’t care as much about electing a polished candidate to the office (after all, both candidates will have a significant learning curve in office).

Commission, District 5

District 5
Dexter Fisher (left), Jared Bailey (middle) and Matt Pulver (right)

Voters get to pick between three very different kinds of Democrats for ACC Commission in District 5:

Dexter Fisher is the most conservative of the three, with a focus on fighting gangs through youth development and crime prevention. He also wants to fight poverty through job training and entrepreneurship. As the Director of Facilities Management at UGA for 31 years, Fisher would surely help the commission improve its relationship with UGA; he’s running on “building bridges” with the university (and between Democrats and Republicans).

Jared Bailey has the most experience of the candidates, having served as commissioner of the district for eight years (from 2011 – 2018). Politically, Bailey is to the left of Fisher and puts a strong focus on protecting the environment. Bailey also has a strong entrepreneurial resume, having founded AthFest, the 40 Watt and the Flagpole magazine.

Matt Pulver is the most progressive of the candidates running. He is the only one who could perhaps replace what current Commissioner Tim Denson has brought to the office after Denson is forced to step down due to Republican gerrymandering. In his campaign, Pulver puts a strong emphasis on racial and economic justice as well as affordable housing. Unlike Bailey, who also calls himself a progressive, Pulver seems determined to find creative means to expand the somewhat meager powers the commission has to solve community problems. Pulver would bring an activist mindset to the commission, similar to Commissioner Mariah Parker and Jesse Houle who have both endorsed him.

Vote for Fisher if your most important issue is fighting gangs through youth development. He is also a good choice if you’d like to see the commission work harder to mend its relationship with UGA or if you consider yourself a more conservative Democrat or Republican.

Vote for Bailey if you’d like a more progressive commissioner, but one who doesn’t get too crazy. He’s also a good choice if your main issues are protecting our natural resources and developing Athens’ economy, or if you want the candidate with the most experience.

Vote for Pulver if you want a truly progressive commissioner who focuses on economic and racial justice and who is willing to call out UGA when they fail to live up to community standards.

Commission, District 7

District 7
Allen Jones (left) and John Culpepper (right)

Like in District 5, the District 7 commission race gives voters the chance to pick between very different candidates. Allen Jones, the founder of Timothy Forward, is a Democrat and a self-described “local politics wonk” who has been involved in numerous ways with the local government over the years, including serving on the TSPLOST 2023 advisory committee. During the campaign, he has focused on environmental sustainability, expanding our alternative transportation network and LGBTQ equality and inclusion.

John Culpepper, on the other hand, is a Republican who has never been involved with local government before. He wants to get involved now to fight what he perceives as a spike in crime rates (although crime rates in general are not increasing) and to improve the “sub-par performance” of Clarke County schools (although he would have no power over the school system as commissioner). He does have experience in jobs training and he would bring that experience to focus on workforce development if elected.

Vote for Jones if you want to elect the candidate with the most experience. He is also a good choice if you are a Democrat or progressive or if the main issues you care about are sustainability, alternative transportation and LGBTQ equality.

Vote for Culpepper if you are a conservative or a Republican. He is also a good choice if your main issues are workforce development, fighting crime and cutting taxes and you don’t mind electing a candidate who would have a significant learning curve in office (most people would, to be fair).

Board of Education, District 1

District 1 Board of Ed
Heidi Hensley (left) and James Alexander (right)

I’ll be honest — I haven’t been able to make the time to interview these candidates and I don’t know much about either of them. But here’s what I do know:

Heidi Hensley is an art teacher at Hilsman Middle School. I saw her at the Historic Athens candidate forum and I appreciated the perspective she brought to that debate. She looks like she could be an excellent candidate, but I’ve reached out to her and have not heard back, which leaves me wondering. On the other hand, James Alexander was not present at the Historic Athens forum, but he reached out to me. Through that correspondence, I learned that his focus is on inclusion of those with differing abilities (both physical and cognitive) and that he wants to bring mental health to the school curriculum, specifically to teach students how to cope with anger, anxiety and depression due to the pandemic.

Both seem like they could be good candidates, but I feel I am unable to give much assistance to voters in this one.

Board of Education, District 5

District 5 Board of Education
Commissioner Tim Denson (left) and Bernard Anderson (not pictured)

This one’s easy — Bernard Anderson qualified to run for office in March but has not run a campaign at all. Word is that he has withdrawn from the race, although his name will still be on District 5 ballots on May 24.

Tim Denson has ample experience that qualifies him for school board; he has served as ACC Commissioner for the last three and a half years and he is the father of a school-age child.

Vote for Denson if you vote in this election, generally-speaking.
Vote for Anderson if you hate Denson and you don’t mind voting for someone who has not been vetted and who might refuse to serve on the school board even if he won.

Board of Education, District 9

District 9 Board of Education
Elder Johnson (left) and Mark Evans (right)

When I first interviewed these two candidates over a month ago, Mark Evans seemed to have the edge in terms of experience and grasp on the issues. That’s not surprising since Evans is a professor of education at Piedmont University. His main goals are to make the Clarke County School District more attractive to prospective teachers, to make better use of the options available to a charter school system and to take a “serious look” at school district leadership.

Elder Johnson is qualified for the position in that he has school-age children and thus a personal stake in improving our school system, but he did not appear to have as good a grasp on the issues at the beginning of this campaign. That’s changing — as the campaign goes on, Johnson is growing quickly as a candidate, as evidenced by his great performance in the Historic Athens candidate forum. Assuming his learning process continues, I have no reason to believe he will do any less than an excellent job in office.

Vote for Evans if you want someone who comes from an academic background with a powerful drive to improve the school district, starting with leadership at the top.

Vote for Johnson if you prefer the perspective of a parent to that of an academic and want to keep the focus solely on improving education for our children, rather than shaking up district leadership.

Referendum: TSPLOST

TSPLOST

The Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or TSPLOST, is a 1% sales tax that funds the maintenance and expansion of Athens’ transportation network, including road repaving, bridge maintenance, intersection improvements, sidewalks, bike lanes and more. The tax was last authorized by voters in 2017 and is about to expire; that’s why it’s on our ballots again.

A YES vote will provide $150 million over the next five years for a long list of important transportation projects (you can see the project list here) while keeping sales taxes steady at 8%.

A NO vote would cause the local government to scramble to find funding for things like pavement maintenance in the county’s budget. Mostly likely, they would put this vote before the people of Athens again at the earliest opportunity because there really is no way to fund some of these projects without this tax. If the vote failed a second time, my guess is that two things would happen: 1) property taxes would be greatly increased to pay for any TSPLOST projects that ACC staff considered necessary, and 2) projects that staff don’t consider necessary (including a record number of resident-submitted projects for neighborhoods all over Athens) would not happen at all, at least not anytime soon.

Vote YES if you’d like to see roads repaved without the need to raise property tax rates, improved safety on our roads for everyone, more sidewalks, bike lanes and the purchase of electric vehicles to lower the local government’s carbon footprint.

Vote NO if you would rather pay for most of these things with a large increase in property tax rates, while preventing others (such as the Firefly Trail and many resident-submitted projects) from being accomplished anytime soon, if ever.

Disclosure: As a biker, I’m looking forward to seeing Athens’ section the Firefly Trail completed! That probably won’t happen anytime soon without a YES vote on TSPLOST.

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