APN’s Top 5 Best (and Worst) of 2022

Every year, APN reviews the top 5 best and worst news stories we covered (or should have covered) that year. Since our 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 the opinion of APN’s editor:

Top 5 Worst

Dishonorable mention: Mayor Kelly Girtz refused to recognize the firefighters’ union

In December, Girtz was brave enough to announce that he was vetoing recognition of the firefighters’ union in a room packed with firefighters and their supporters. Girtz chose the more efficient and less costly option for the government that he leads, and from a certain perspective, it’s hard to blame him. But nevertheless, this was a missed opportunity.

Let’s be clear. Girtz was not trying to stop an increase in benefits or wages for firefighters by denying their union recognition. Girtz had actually overseen an expansion of wages and benefits for public safety employees very recently and announced that he was open to further increases for all ACC employees.

But union organizing isn’t just about wage increases or securing benefits — it’s about dignity. It’s a human right to be able to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate with your boss as an equal. On a daily basis, workers find themselves subject to the chain of command and are forced to swallow their pride even though as human beings, they know they are of equal value. They deserve to be seen as true equals by management at least when negotiating the conditions of their employment, if not during a normal work day.

Unless we’re willing to empower workers on a basic level, we may never become the just and prosperous community we aspire to be. Girtz’s decision was correct from a managerial standpoint but was nevertheless a missed opportunity, and perhaps even a denial of human rights.

#5 – Mariah Parker resigned as commissioner, causing chaos (and an unnecessary lawsuit)

Summary: When Mariah Parker stepped down suddenly as commissioner this year, they caused east Athens to lose representation for months. That brought an enormous amount of constituent distrust to the surface, resulting in a lawsuit.

Mariah Parker being sworn in
Former Commissioner Mariah Parker swears-in on the autobiography of Malcolm X.

Mariah Parker has been a polarizing figure ever since swearing-in as commissioner on the autobiography of Malcom X in 2018. Parker’s sudden exit from Athens politics also caused a stir this August. They resigned, leaving parts of east Athens without representation until ACC holds a special election to replace Parker as the ACC Commissioner of District 2. That election is scheduled for March 21.

No one likes being without representation. It’s understandable that Parker’s constituents would be angry. When you consider the rapid rent increases and gentrification that’s happening throughout District 2 and east Athens, it makes even more sense to be upset.

But the lawsuit brought by Inner East Athens Neighbors against the ACC Board of Elections never made any sense at all. It was based on a flawed understanding of how things work behind-the-scenes within local government. This flawed understanding allowed conspiracy theories to take root which have poisoned people’s relationship with their government.

That’s why this lawsuit makes the top 5 list of the worst things that happened this year in local politics.

The ACC Board of Elections never did anything wrong throughout the process of selecting a special election date. Georgia law would have allowed for a November special election, yes, but it would have been a hardship on poll workers and worst of all, it would have been confusing for voters. The ACC Board of Elections made the right call to wait. Check out APN’s coverage of the lawsuit to learn more.

A March election date simply made the most sense, all things considered. But that hasn’t stopped some from believing that the date was chosen purposefully to disenfranchise the people of District 2, if only for a few months. This is simply not the case. There was never a conspiracy to disenfranchise anyone. If you believe there was, I beg you to consider, with an open mind, the reasons why the Board of Election chose the date they did.

#4 – UGA and the Board of Regents entrenched themselves on the wrong side of history

Summary: After burying Linnentown, UGA and the Board of Regents decided to keep digging.

The Linnentown Mosaic was intended to be the final and most important stop in the Linnentown Walk of Recognition that would have reminded passers-by of the neighborhood that once existed at the intersection of Baxter and Finley Streets.

The Linnentown mosaic
The Linnentown mosaic was installed for one day only, thanks to some UGA students.

Unfortunately, the ACC government’s Justice and Memory Project failed to get UGA’s approval to install the mosaic at this site. Even so, they assumed they could go forward with installation if they constructed it within the public right-of-way and didn’t stray onto UGA property.

The Board of Regents responded by arguing that there is no existing public right-of-way at Baxter and Finley. They refused to allow the mosaic to be constructed at all.

Although UGA’s argument would have legitimacy in a court of law, make no mistake. This is a misuse of the law to further oppress and silence descendants of Linnentown. It represents a recent low point for an institution built with slave labor and maintained through white supremacy. UGA and the Board of Regents should be embracing this opportunity to get back on the right side of history. Instead, they have entrenched themselves in opposition to justice and seem content to keep digging into the darkness, as if they could bury their misdeeds and keep them hidden.

They can’t.

We know what you’re doing, UGA. The only thing this stunt will accomplish in the long-run is give your successors more to apologize for.

#3 – Petty commissioners and corrupt state legislators toyed with our democracy

Summary: The commission’s ideological makeup will change quite a bit next year. This isn’t happening as the result of any democratic process, but instead because corrupt state officials wanted it that way.

Commission districts change after the US Census every ten years to ensure that everyone’s vote counts the same in our democracy. Political boundaries should change to keep up with population growth, of course. But the legislature shouldn’t change the lines to enact a political agenda. When they do, they take power out of the people’s hands and destroy the foundations of our democracy.

This is exactly what the state legislature did in January.

Their gerrymandering had the desired effect of making three commissioners ineligible to run for re-election. By inappropriately (and, in my opinion, illegally) restricting the pool of commission candidates, they put a thumb on the scale and tarnished the legitimacy of the 2022 local elections. Even worse, they were assisted in this vile act by commissioners who wanted to remove their political opponents from power without an election.

Regardless of what you think about the three progressive commissioners who were removed from office undemocratically, I’d hope all of Athens could come together to condemn this attack upon our basic right to self-governance by the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Democrats, the next time your party gains power statewide, resist the urge for revenge. Our democracy can only heal when both parties stop abusing it like they have back and forth for decades.

#2 – Housing costs continued to spiral out of control

Summary: The housing crisis deepened this year, almost to a breaking point. Commissioners tried all kinds of solutions but just aren’t equipped to make a real dent in any problem of this magnitude.

Anyone who rents in Athens knows that housing costs are skyrocketing out of control. According to apartmentlist.com, the average monthly rent in Athens has ballooned from $936 in January 2020 to $1,118 today, a 19.4% increase in less than three years.

Fortunately, the ACC Commission is aware of this problem and is taking steps to help slow down the increase.

For example, the commission passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance to encourage the private sector to build subsidized housing. They’re pushing the Classic Center to include an affordable housing component near their new arena and they’ve also approved smaller, “missing middle”-style housing developments in addition to larger multifamily complexes. They’ve allocated American Rescue Plan funding to various non-profits to help them construct new housing, help repair older housing and to help people who have been displaced from their homes with a array of social supports.

A garage apartment
An example of an accessory dwelling unit (a garage apartment). Photo by radcliffe dacanay on Flikr.com (CC BY 2.0)

The commission is considering the regulation of short-term rentals like AirBnBs and they’re looking at zoning more broadly to find ways they can encourage housing affordability. They might eventually allow things like duplexes, quadplexes and accessory dwelling units to help increase housing supply and remove the upward pressure on prices.

Finally, the commission will continue to support the Athens Housing Authority’s redevelopment of Bethel Homes which will eventually bring hundreds of quality, subsidized apartments to the downtown area.

Unfortunately, as much as the ACC Commission and other institutions have done on this issue in recent years, rents have continued to climb. There may not be much anyone can do about it. As long as our society views housing as an investment opportunity as much as a place to live, we’ll have to deal with the negative consequences of that belief. People will continue to lose their homes, and others will continue profiting from it.

One day, I hope to see aggressive action by the federal and state governments to stabilize rents nationwide and begin the construction of a new era of high-quality public housing. Until then, I fear we won’t be able to truly solve this problem. At best, we’ll only be able to stop it from getting worse.

#1 – Rapacious investors exiled poor tenants for profit in the name of Jesus

Summary: Despite numerous acts of real-estate gluttony, unthinking cruelty and inhumane treatment inflicted upon their neighbors for profit, some Florida “pastors” still apparently believe that they’re doing the Lord’s work.

 In June, the investment firm Prosperity Capital Partners bought up dozens of duplexes in several low-income neighborhoods across town. In my opinion, their plan is to boot the existing residents, make superficial upgrades and then market the units to a wealthier crowd, probably UGA students. Residents certainly felt as though they were being pushed out when the new management company announced they would no longer accept subsidized housing vouchers like Section 8. Anyone who decided to stay had their rent vastly increased, up to double their previous rate.

Prosperity Capital Partners’ investments and management style caused a flood of newly homeless people to flee these neighborhoods. Some found other places to live, others moved in with friends or family and some undoubtedly ended up on the street or at a homeless shelter. They deserved better. They had been our friends and neighbors, but at this point, many of them will never return to Athens.

With billions in investment capital circling the country (and the world) looking for money-making opportunities, we can expect this scenario to happen again, and to keep happening. But what is particularly galling about Prosperity Capital Partners is that they believe they are doing God’s will. Randy and Sara Jo Lawrence are online pastors who believe in the prosperity gospel. They think their wealth comes from Jesus because of their faith and pious lives.

Randy and Sara Jo Lawrence
Randy and Sara Jo Lawrence, owners of Prosperity Capital Partners.

It makes me wonder — have they ever actually read the Bible?

Jesus encouraged his followers to give all they had to the poor, but Randy and Sara Jo encourage their followers to take all they can from the poor. I’m no pastor, but it seems to me that the gospel according to the Lawrences couldn’t be any more in opposition to the teachings of Christ.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Randy and Sara Jo — I wouldn’t assume you’re going to Heaven. In fact, if Hell exists, there’s probably an infernal torture chamber down there with your names on it. You still have time to change your ways, and you know what you need to do. But I’m not holding my breath.

Top 5 Best

Honorable mentions: Cannabis decriminalized / ACC Democrats forgive $1.5 million in local medical debt

Summary: The commission instructed police to give a $35 fine for those caught with small amounts of cannabis and the ACC Democratic Party raised $5,875 to forgive over $1.5 million in local medical debt.

Cannabis decriminalized

Cannabis has been effectively decriminalized in Athens since the state legislature legalized hemp in 2019, because police can’t distinguish the two plants from each other. That means nothing changed this year when the ACC Commission decriminalized cannabis on purpose for the first time. Even so, decriminalization has been a major goal of criminal justice reformers for decades — it’s important legislatively even if it doesn’t make a difference for law enforcement just yet.

ACC Democrats abolish medical debt

Following in the footsteps of Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight PAC, the ACC Democratic Party raised $5,875 as part of their campaign to abolish over $1.5 million in medical debt in Athens and surrounding counties. Yes, it’s an election year stunt, but it serves to reinforce Democrats’ message that this medical debt should not exist in the first place. It backs up their political rhetoric with actual cash that has provided at least some amount of relief for our neighbors who had been struggling to pay their debts this year. They’ll stop getting phone calls about it and they just might be able to enjoy the holiday season in peace. Thanks, ACC Dems!

#5 – Downtown was greatly improved, including Clayton Street

Summary: The frenzy over the “blue noodle” overshadowed the completion of a MAJOR renovation effort on Clayton Street and top-notch upgrades throughout downtown.

I don’t care about the “blue noodle.” Shocking, I know.

What I do care about are the massive infrastructure upgrades we’ve installed downtown this year, including better signage, wider sidewalks, upgraded utility lines, a new public bathroom and yes, more public art. These projects have been years, decades even, in the making. They bring our downtown into the 21st century and are worth every penny of construction cost.

The "blue noodle" on Clayton Street
The “blue noodle” and improved signage on Clayton Street

Any city would be incredibly fortunate to have an economic engine as powerful as the one we have downtown. Don’t take it for granted, and definitely don’t let it be overshadowed by a “blue noodle.” Athens’ downtown is worth investing in, and it’s worth celebrating now more than ever.

#4 – Prince Avenue is now safer for everyone

Summary: Public safety advocates had been pushing for decades to limit the number of car lanes on Prince Avenue. This year, it finally happened!

Prince Avenue has been transformed from a busy four-lane highway to an equally-busy (but much safer-feeling) three-lane road with protected bike lanes on each side. The changes act to slow car traffic through the corridor, as expected, but only by a very small amount. Level of service was not impacted and traffic didn’t divert to neighboring streets as some feared.

Prince Avenue during the three-lane pilot project.
Prince Avenue during the three-lane pilot project.

All things considered, it’s a big success, and that’s why commissioners voted unanimously to make the three-lane pilot project permanent in December.

#3 – Library workers won their fight for $15

Summary: Wages at the ACC Library have always been extremely low. In fact, they had been among the lowest in the country. But library workers started organizing and succeeded at getting a $15 an hour wage floor in place this year!

It’s hard to believe that two years ago, the ACC Library offered only $10 an hour for many positions and at times would go as low as $8.40. Even some with years of experience and advanced degrees in library science made under $15 an hour working for this beloved Athens institution.

But no more!

When the local government boosted its lowest-paid employees to $15 an hour and beyond, library workers took it upon themselves to advocate for the same boost. They petitioned the mayor and commission for more money for the library during budget negotiations in May but they also ended up having to petition their own library management. Their executive director made a significant ask for more funding, but was hesitant to ask for quite enough to raise the wage floor to a living wage.

It was library workers themselves who pushed for what they needed and who made this negotiation between the library and the local government take place. And they won. They eventually secured the funding to have living wages for all library workers. Given everything library workers do for the people of Athens every day, it couldn’t be better deserved.

#2 – Athens showed up for LGBTQ equality

Summary: The local government made dramatic strides on the Human Rights Campaign’s equality index and installed rainbow crosswalks as Athens showed up big time for the first ever Pride Parade through downtown Athens.

When the Athens Pride and Queer Collective first discussed asking the local government to set up rainbow crosswalks at the former site of the Confederate monument in 2020, some wondered if we actually deserved them as a city. Was it even appropriate to slap down some rainbow paint and call it equality if the government was going to ignore the many ways in which LGBTQ residents were marginalized and discriminated against in Athens?

In 2020, Athens scored a pathetic 29 points out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s municipal equality index, which measures how welcoming local governments are to the LGBTQ community.

Not good. But since then, the ACC Commission has made a lot of progress on the government side of things. They established a Human Relations Commission and passed comprehensive civil rights legislation to greatly improve their score in recent years. This year, Athens achieved a solid 80% on the index! Although not perfect, that’s a noteworthy achievement given our starting point.

Rainbow crosswalk ceremony
The official opening of downtown’s rainbow crosswalks.

The local government finally installed those rainbow crosswalks in 2022. They also raised the Progress Pride flag above city hall in solidarity for the first ever Pride Parade in Athens, which was an amazing event attended by thousands! Even better, I believe that these actions represent a true commitment to LGBTQ equality and that they really do help make us a more welcoming town. That’s why, all together, they have earned the penultimate spot on this list.

Congratulations to the Athens Pride and Queer Collective and to everyone who helped make this happen!

#1 – Athens disburses American Rescue Plan funding and helps Warnock win re-election

Summary: Raphael Warnock’s runoff win in early 2021 opened the door for the passage of the American Rescue Plan which has brought badly needed funding into Athens — $57 million worth (and more). The ACC Commission started to disburse that money this year as Athens voters turned out to help Warnock — the first and only Black Senator to represent Georgia — win re-election.

As a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Congress gave the ACC government $57 million in American Rescue Plan funding to distribute over the next five years. The ACC Commission decided to devote that money in several different areas: to provide needed assistance for housing and homelessness; youth development and violence prevention; business development and workforce support as well as improved behavioral health.

American Rescue Plan funding has already supported youth development through summer camp programs, it will allow the creation of a comprehensive plan to address homelessness, an eviction prevention program, the First Step homeless camp, and it’s funded the construction of 40 new, affordable single-family homes as well as put millions towards home repair and weatherization assistance for low-income families among many other programs.

It’s also funded hazard pay for ACC employees who worked at the height of the pandemic and it kept Athens Transit running for an entire year with virtually no cost to the local taxpayer. The American Rescue plan has truly been a lifeline for Athens and it will continue to provide numerous opportunities and benefits for Athenians that would be difficult to fund through any other means.

While the commission will continue to disburse this funding for years to come, it seems appropriate that we take a moment to celebrate its importance for our town. And what better moment than just after Raphael Warnock’s recent victory and re-election to the US Senate?

Senator Raphael Warnock
Photo of Senator Raphael Warnock by Julia Beverly

Without Warnock, Athens would have been denied all of these opportunities. Every single Republican in the US Senate voted NO on the American Rescue Plan. Every single one!

Our democracy has been wavering on a knife’s edge in recent years, but with Warnock’s victory (and with the loss of many Trump-backed candidates throughout the country), our national crisis might finally be coming to an end. Remain vigilant, as always, but if we still have a democracy that’s functional enough to provide for something like the American Rescue Plan and to re-elect the Senator who brought it to Georgia in the first place, that’s worth celebrating.

Happy new year, everyone!

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