APN’s Top 5 Best (and Worst) of 2023

Every year, APN reviews the top 5 best and worst news stories we covered that year. Since our focus is on local and state governments, that’s the focus of the lists below as well.

Here are the top 5 worst and best things that happened in local and state politics this year, in the opinion of APN’s editor.

Top 5 Worst

Dishonorable mention – UGA canceled the Athens News Matters panel

Summary: UGA canceled the journalist panel segment of their local news show Athens News Matters this year with very little warning. That’s a shame. Worse is why it was canceled.

UGA said they canceled the segment because it wasn’t very popular, but the real reason seems to be their displeasure with Flagpole reporter Blake Aued and myself for reporting true things about the housing market in Athens. Aued and I were both on the panel at the time, along with former Mayor Gwen O’Looney.

An article I wrote (published in the Flagpole) offended the university’s public relations team because it mentioned the impact UGA has on housing in Athens. To correct the record, UGA asked Flagpole to publish an op-ed written by UGA’s Director of Community Relations. That would have been fine, except that the op-ed was logically inconsistent. UGA tried to rebut the obviously true idea that UGA students may compete for housing with permanent residents if more apartments weren’t built. UGA’s public relations team was trying to push the university’s perspective without regard for objectivity, which is why it wasn’t published.

Realizing that neither Flagpole nor APN would cave to their demands, UGA retaliated by canceling the journalist panel segment. Apparently, they didn’t want to platform independent journalists who might say true things they didn’t like. That’s a shame. The Athens News Matters panel was an important part of Athens’ news ecosystem. It was quite popular and it’s been missed.

#5 – The ACC Commission repeatedly ignored their own experts

Summary: The ACC Commission seems to have made a habit of ignoring or outright rejecting sound advice from staff and resident committees like the ACC Planning Commission.

Elected officials sometimes have a tendency to prioritize political gain over community benefit. It’s nothing new. But it hasn’t happened recently in Athens quite as often as it did this year. It’s gotten bad enough to be one of the worst things that happened all year. 

To be fair, it was a pretty good year all things considered, so maybe this issue stood out more than it otherwise would have.

Maybe we expect the commission to reject housing out of NIMBY concerns on occasion like they did in August, despite unanimous approval from the planning commission. And perhaps most people agreed with the commission’s rejection of a pet registration program in October even though it was supported by animal services experts. Similarly, I’m sure very few people cared that the commission rejected a breezeway and other additions for one house in the Bloomfield neighborhood because nearby residents feared it would attract students, even though it also had unanimous planning approval.

By themselves, these incidents might not be a big deal. We might even support the decisions, but there’s a worrying trend here. 

Worse was how the commission struggled with the approval of bike facilities on Barber Street for months. They eventually approved a multi-use path in June, but only after trying to micromanage ACC staff in an effort to save a handful of parking spaces. The fact that their modifications might end up somewhat compromising pedestrian or bicyclist safety didn’t seem to bother commissioners that much.

Worst of all – and the reason why this made the list – is that the commission rejected candidate sites for a new fire station in November. Yes, you heard that right – they rejected a fire station, disregarding over a year of work from the site selection committee for no real reason. A handful of nearby residents didn’t want the extra traffic, so now the entire community’s emergency response network will suffer.

Elected officials should not play politics when it comes to community safety! It’s okay to disagree with the experts sometimes, but you’ve got to have a good reason when you do. “I don’t want it in my backyard” is not a good reason to reject a fire house.

I’m a strong believer in democracy. At the same time, I believe that experts have their place in a well-run government. Sometimes the public should not be the ones making certain decisions. It’s my hope that the ACC Commission will resolve to resist inappropriate public pressure in 2024 and rededicate themselves to serving the greater good.

#4 – The ACC budget debacle

The ACC Commission failed to work together to pass a unanimous budget this year, something that is fairly rare. Commissioner Mike Hamby refused to work with Commissioner Jesse Houle on a compromise, so the two ended up working in parallel on the budget, the most important thing the commission does every year.

Occasionally, there’s one commissioner who feels left out of the dealmaking and votes against the budget. This year, the commission was evenly split on the two budget proposals, even though they were very similar. This is very unusual. In fact, I don’t think it’s ever happened before in Athens’ history. 

Why were they unable to compromise?

My take is that certain wealthy Athenians wanted the bigger tax cut present in Hamby’s proposal, so they put pressure on Hamby’s group to deliver. Rising to the challenge, Hamby’s group eschewed compromise and passed their budget by any means necessary, trampling on the democratic process to do it. The antidemocratic maneuver they used was inappropriate and disrespectful to their commission colleagues and all Athens voters (read more about it in the links above).

#3 – Charles Hardy dissolved Athens Alliance Coalition, dooming the First Step encampment

Summary: As the executive director of the Athens Alliance Coalition, Charles Hardy did a lot of good at First Step over the past two years. But the way he left the organization undoes much of that good work and is difficult to excuse.

The First Step official homeless encampment was controversial from the beginning, in part because the group running the camp – Athens Alliance Coalition – had no experience working with the government or managing million dollar contracts. Charles Hardy made all kinds of mistakes as executive director, some understandable, some less so. He also broke laws, which eventually led to his being removed as executive director.

I don’t want to rehash the long and mixed history of the First Step encampment. I also don’t want to bash a person who contributed so much and helped so many people experiencing homelessness in our community.

But Hardy’s disruptive behavior is difficult to ignore. He caused chaos at the camp by telling residents it would be shutting down, months before it actually did. He took many items from the camp with him as he left, which according to the ACC Government were purchased with public funds.

Finally, he dissolved the organization he founded without approval from the board. That left the local government without a legal entity with which to cooperate, forcing the camp to shut down. It took a few months, but Hardy eventually succeeded in burning the bridges behind him like he wanted. I hope he’s satisfied.

Hardy’s actions led to seven former camp residents being discharged into the cold this month with nowhere to go. He also tarnished the camp’s image (which wasn’t great to begin with), perhaps making it less likely Athens will end up experimenting with a similar low-barrier camp in the future.

To be fair, it’s unclear if the local government would have continued First Step even if Hardy had exited with grace. Regardless, his actions sealed the camp’s fate and made the process much more difficult than it needed to be.

#2 – Creature Comforts’ union busting

Summary: When Creature Comforts workers started getting organized in January, brewery management did all they could to discourage them from forming a union. They fired union organizers, intimidated other workers and delayed the union vote for months.

Let’s face it – Creature Comforts makes some of the best beer in town. That’s why the failure of the Creature Comforts union drive is such a lost opportunity. The brewery was rapidly becoming one of Athens’ best known and most loved brands. As a certified B-corp, they had a reputation for doing good and for caring about workers and the environment. 

No longer.

If you ask me, the company should have embraced unionization and set what could have developed into an industry-wide standard in Georgia. Instead, they went out of their way to fight their workers by hiring a notorious union-busting law firm also employed by Starbucks and Amazon. They used disingenuous legal arguments to delay the union vote for as long as possible. Some former Creature Comforts employees say the company also discouraged union participation, leading some workers to feel their advancement in the company would be at risk if they joined the union.

Creature Comforts Brewery

That’s not okay. Workers should not feel conflicted about exercising their basic right to organize in the workplace. 

I believe companies operate best under democratic workplace conditions where workers know they can bring problems forward and find solutions without risking their jobs. Creature Comforts workers do not have this kind of workplace now, according to some former employees. In their arrogance and reluctance to share power, brewery owners have come to believe they know better than workers about how to run the company and it’s causing issues that need to be addressed.

Everyone there could have benefitted had workers been allowed to vote on union representation in February or March. Instead it turned into an unnecessary battle that stretched on until October and alienated some workers who were on the fence. Admittedly, union organizers made crucial mistakes, but they shouldn’t need to be perfect to secure their basic right to a more democratic workplace.

#1 – The state legislature and other extremist groups attacked the LGBTQ community

Summary: The state legislature banned gender-affirming care for minors and Moms for Liberty members successfully removed an LGBTQ book from the young adult section of the Oconee County Library.

Every year the right-wing outrage machine picks a new target in their culture war. 

This year, right-wing pundits and influencers went after trans people and the LGBTQ community generally. As a result, Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country – including Georgia’s – ended up passing laws banning gender-affirming surgery and hormone treatment for trans youth. 

A group of Georgia families filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban, but a federal judge has allowed the law to stay in effect for now until the appeals process of a similar lawsuit in Alabama plays out.

I should note that it was rare for trans teenagers to receive gender-affirming surgery in Georgia or elsewhere even before these bans. For example, genital surgery on teenagers is extremely rare and is not performed on children, according to the New York Times. On the other hand, breast-removal surgery is becoming more common for young trans men, but perhaps that should be expected considering the number of people identifying as trans nearly doubled from 2017 to 2020.

Parental consent was required for these surgeries when they were legal, which must have been a difficult decision. I certainly wouldn’t know what to recommend. It takes a special kind of arrogance for the state to get in-between parents and doctors and prohibit certain medical procedures. Do they know anything about these teens and their experiences? In many cases, this kind of surgery can have a positive influence on trans teens’ mental health and sense of well-being. 

Who is Athens’ state representative Houston Gaines, for example, to mandate that teenage trans boys in Georgia must have breasts if they don’t want them? That is simply not the legislature’s business.

Even worse is the prohibition on hormone therapy. What gives them the right to mandate the hormones that should be present in our bodies? At best, you could argue this is an example of a well-meaning ‘nanny state’ run amuck. At worst, this is a direct attack on the existence of trans people. It should not be tolerated.

The extremist group Moms for Liberty added to the attack on the LGBTQ community this year when they successfully got the LGBTQ young adult graphic novel Flamer removed from the young adult section of the Oconee County Library. The book is still at the library, but it has become more difficult for teens to discover while browsing.

Obviously, this isn’t as big a deal as the law discussed above, but it shows that our library system is susceptible to influence by right-wing extremists. The LGBTQ community and its allies need to stay as vigilant in 2024 as we were this year.

A group of people waiting to speak, some holding signs
LGBTQ+ supporters packed a meeting of the ACC Library board this year.

Top 5 Best

#5 – The local government recognized the firefighter’s union

Summary: After months of advocacy, ACC firefighters won recognition for their union from the local government. It’s another victory for 2023’s “hot union summer” and it’s something that brings us together locally despite our political differences.

The “hot union summer” felt around the country also had an impact in Athens, where we had a big surge in union activity. The Creature Comforts union drive failed (see above), but the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County succeeded despite long odds. 

Progressive commissioners defied the mayor to force union recognition on the commission’s agenda and managed to pass a resolution 5-4 in support of the firefighters last December. Mayor Kelly Girtz immediately vetoed the resolution citing the “fracturing and atomization” that could result if some public safety employees (e.g. firefighters) are given union recognition when others (e.g. police officers) are not.

Girtz had a real point there. Hopefully, his fears will prove to be unfounded. 

Despite the veto, firefighters eventually won anyway due to some quick thinking by Commissioner Mike Hamby. Hamby proposed delaying a separate vote on the union recognition ordinance until April, which other commissioners agreed to. Later, it was delayed even longer so commissioners could consider it and come to an agreement.

Firefighters pack city hall
ACC Firefighters packed multiple commission meetings while fighting for recognition for their union.

At the time, I called Hamby’s delay a “Hail Mary pass” to a future commission that would be much more conservative and thus almost certain to let the ball drop. I thought it had no chance to pass. I was wrong! The vote ended up being almost unanimous as new Commissioners John Culpepper and Dexter Fisher sided with the firefighters over ACC management. 

This is one of those rare, politically-charged issues that cut across party lines. Both the Athens GOP and ACC Democrats were strongly in favor of it. Only Commissioner Allison Wright voted against the firefighters, showing political bravery that I must commend even though I disagree with her reasoning.

But let’s consider it for a moment – were Wright and Girtz actually correct on this one? One could argue that this is yet another time the ACC Commission made decisions for political reasons this year rather than listen to experts like ACC Manager Blaine Williams. Similar to Wright and Girtz, I also have concerns that union recognition might turn around to bite the local government by causing fractures between the police department and the fire department. That’s something no one wants – morale is bad enough! 

That’s why this one is #5 and not further down the list.

For now, it’s a triumph for workers and another victory for unions this year. It’s an issue that brings us together as Athenians despite our political differences. That’s something to celebrate! 

#4 – ACC 911 Center upgraded

The ACC Police Department started using a protocol called “emergency medical dispatch” at the ACC 911 center this year, and it’s almost certain to save lives. Check out my article on the topic to find out why it’s so important if you missed this story.

#3 – Athens Homeless Coalition funded for the first time

Summary: This year, the ACC Commission began a major effort to reduce homelessness in Athens, funding the Athens Homeless Coalition for the first time. 

Homelessness has been a large and growing problem in recent years. But thanks to the American Rescue Plan, Athens has finally got the funding and the political will to do something about it. The local government also created a strategic plan to guide their going forward.

The strategic plan to reduce and prevent homelessness calls for more coordination between nonprofits through the Athens Homeless Coalition, which will have its own paid staff for the first time. These new staff members will implement standards, strengthen relationships between providers and develop the organizational infrastructure needed to carry out the rest of the plan.

The Athens Homeless Coalition has recently restructured to improve their capacity. They’ve elected a board that represents the community, not just service providers, and they’re ready to get to work. 

Athens Homeless Coalition meeting
Madison Sanders, executive director of Family Promise of Athens, speaking at a meeting of the Athens Homeless Coalition this October.

No one knows how this will all shake out, but for once uncertainty seems like a good thing. We haven’t had much reason to be hopeful on this issue before, and now that we do – it’s invigorating. It could be transformative for Athens. Funding the Homeless Coalition is definitely one of the best things that happened this year.

#2 – Progress on affordable housing

Summary: Hundreds of affordable homes and apartments have been approved this year or are under construction in Athens right now. At the same time, the local government has developed an affordable housing investment strategy to guide us going forward. 

As I’m sure you are aware, Athens is in the midst of a housing crisis. Year after year, the cost of housing keeps going up and it’s forcing people out. Last year was probably the worst year for housing in Athens ever.

But don’t despair! There’s reason for hope.

First, let’s take a look at the big picture. Inflation has been raising the cost of everything, but it’s finally come down to reasonable levels this year, meaning the Federal Reserve will stop raising interest rates. Both of these things are good news for builders! The cost overruns that had been stymying big projects like the redevelopment of Bethel Homes should start to disappear. Next year, their borrowing costs will also go down as the Fed lowers interest rates.

On the local level, several important affordable housing projects have been approved in Athens recently with more probably on the way for next year. For example, Habitat for Humanity’s Micah’s Creek development promises to build 63 affordable single-family homes and even better, they’re offering zero interest loans to families who qualify! You can’t do any better than that, and it could be transformative for these families.

If you prefer housing that’s guaranteed to stay affordable over the long term, no matter who lives there, then the Athens Flats development is for you. The Athens Housing Authority plans to build 192 apartments (305 beds) out by “Space” Kroger, 38 of which will be reserved for Section 8 housing voucher recipients. The others should stay affordable for people making at least 60% of the area median income permanently.

The Georgia Square Mall redevelopment will also contribute about 120 apartments with below-market rents, making it worthy of a mention.

The local government has also developed a strategy to guide public investment in housing going forward. It remains to be seen if they’ll actually stick to their strategy or if they’ll shelve it like so many other plans that have come before, but it’s a start. It at least seems possible for the first time in a while that housing prices, relative to wages, will start to come down over the medium term. There’s a long way to go, but still, it’s worth celebrating.

#1 – Finally, justice for Linnentown!

After years of advocacy, a group of former Linnentown residents led by Hattie Thomas Whitehead have won a tangible and permanent sign to mark the spot their homes once occupied – this year, the local government renamed part of S. Finley Street to Linnentown Lane. They have also won a form of reparations for their lost homes.

Hattie Thomas Whitehead and Mayor Kelly Girtz cheer underneath a street sign that reads "Linnentown Lane."

“It’s about time,” Whitehead said during the unveiling ceremony.

Linnentown was a thriving Black neighborhood in Athens that was destroyed by the University System of Georgia’s urban renewal project in the 1960s. On the land where fifty Black families had lived, the university system built three dormitories while using eminent domain to pay only a third of the market price for these families’ homes.

Up until the present day, the University of Georgia has fought tooth and nail to prevent any recognition of the former neighborhood and their role in its destruction.

While the local government can’t pay back former Linnentown residents directly for their land due to the gratuities clause in the Georgia Constitution, they can pay back the debt in other ways. For example, the commission awarded Historic Athens $531,000 this year for an equitable home preservation initiative to help low-income residents repair their historic homes (hopefully, this will include many Black homeowners). The local government is also planning to build a new Black history museum called the ‘Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures’ and has already earmarked $500,000 towards that project.

Whitehead recommended both of these initiatives as part of the Athens Justice and Memory Project, which she chairs. They are intended as a form of reparations for the property that was taken from Linnentown residents. 

This is a huge success story that will hopefully become a model for how to implement reparations across Georgia. Congratulations to everyone who has been involved in the Athens Justice and Memory Project, but especially to Whitehead and other former Linnentown residents. It’s been truly amazing to watch this unfold and it’s something Athens can be proud of.

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