Athens’ officials defend records, statements at Town Hall

Several elected officials representing Athens were asked to defend their legislative record and past statements at a town hall meeting that ACC Commissioner Tiffany Taylor convened in east Athens on Saturday.

State Representatives Houston Gaines (R) and Spencer Frye (D) were in attendance, along with ACC Commissioners Melissa Link, Ovita Thornton, Carol Myers and District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez (D). Most of these officials were challenged by the moderator, the audience or a panelist to defend themselves at some point during the two-hour town hall meeting.

Melissa Link defends remarks about UGA football

The conversation kicked off with the moderator asking Link to defend comments she made last year about UGA football players “raping and murdering.”

0:00 – Link defends UGA football comments
3:28 – Introductions
16:55 – Gaines discusses the 2023 legislative session
27:59 – Gaines Q&A on homelessness
29:30 – Gaines Q&A on affordable housing
33:15 – Gaines Q&A on oversight of prosecutors
39:10 – Gaines Q&A on rural broadband access
43:17 – Gonzalez defends her performance as DA
55:05 – Gaines responds to Gonzalez
1:02:05 – Frye discusses affordable housing
1:14:22 – Frye discusses cannabis laws
1:16:50 – Frye discusses tax on menstrual products
1:17::37 – Frye Q&A on homelessness services
1:23:23 – Frye Q&A on affordable housing
1:27:01 – Warnock’s representative speaks
1:29:00 – Frye Q&A on affordable housing
1:44:09 – Frye Q&A on reparations
1:46:18 – Frye Q&A on homelessness
1:48:05 – Frye Q&A on the Board of Regents
1:49:02 – Frye Q&A on income discrimination in housing
1:52:23 – Tiffany Taylor’s closing remarks

Link said that she was taken out of context, but maintained that there is a “culture problem” in UGA football which she feels administration and coaches should do more to address. Link says that three Georgia football players were under indictment for sexual assault and one for murder at the time she made her remarks.

You can listen to Link’s controversial 2022 comment here in its full context.

Houston Gaines
Houston Gaines (R)

Houston Gaines faces questions on affordable housing

In his opening remarks, Gaines touted his record on providing property tax relief and a low-income tax freeze for Athenians, although he did not mention that the idea originated in the ACC Commission. But local tenants’ rights attorney Sarah Gehring questioned Gaines’ portrayal that his role in providing tax relief was actually an effort to promote affordable housing for his constituents.

“Is a homestead exemption increase the best use of our funds?” Gehring asked. “If you look at who owns houses, the vast majority of the people who really struggle here are tenants, they’re renters, and they’re not going to get a dime from that.”

You can watch Gaines’ and Gehring’s full discussion on this issue here.

Another audience member asked Gaines if he was doing anything to address the issue of outside investors buying up large numbers of rental properties in Athens while refusing to accept housing vouchers and doubling rents.

“I’m sixty years old. I’ve been here all my life and I’m having to be homeless because…somebody from Florida is coming and buying up the houses. What about the problem about the people coming in and jacking up the rent for the poor? Have y’all worked on that?”

Gaines was never forced to answer this important question because Frye deflected attention from his Republican colleague, saying that he is working on a bill about the issue. However, Frye’s bill, if it truly addresses the issue, would have almost no chance of passing. That’s because Republicans like Gaines generally support monied interests such as landlords and investors over the interests of the poor when these groups come into conflict.

Furthermore, the 2023 legislative session is over. Frye’s bill will have to wait until next year before being shot down or ignored by the party which controls the state legislature. Without being held to account at town hall meetings like this one, Republican officials may never need to give a reason why they failed to act.

You can watch this question here.

Rent control and other issues of affordable housing were discussed later in the meeting after Gaines had left.

Deborah Gonzalez
District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez (D)

Deborah Gonzalez defends her record as District Attorney

Another issue brought up by Gaines during his remarks was that of holding prosecutors in Georgia accountable if they fail to perform their duties adequately.

“We gotta make sure we’re holding criminals accountable, you can’t just have a revolving door,” Gaines said. “Right now, if a District Attorney or Solicitor [General] is not doing their job, there’s really not a mechanism in law to address it.”

That’s why Gaines said that he supported SB 92, a bill which will create a state commission to oversee prosecuting attorneys and discipline them if necessary — up to and including their removal from office. Normally, it’s assumed that voters will remove prosecutors during elections if they’re unhappy with their performance. But in the case of Deborah Gonzalez, the District Attorney of Athens and Oconee County, Gaines insisted that we can’t wait until the next election.

“You have prosecutors who are choosing not to enforce the law,” Gaines said. “That puts public safety at risk. Are we supposed to just wait four years?”

Gaines called out Gonzalez’s office repeatedly for failing to uphold her responsibilities. Eventually, Gonzalez was given the floor to respond. She said that SB 92 was put forward only after the 2020 election, when Gonzalez herself and several other women of color were elected to DA positions around the state. The bill didn’t pass until this year, and Gonzalez believes she knows the reason for that as well.

“It passed in 2023, why? Because a woman of color DA in Fulton County is about to indict a certain former president.”

Gonzalez continued, defending her record as District Attorney. She acknowledged serious staffing issues in her office, and claimed that they arose due to uncompetitive salaries for Assistant District Attorneys in particular. “People left in the beginning because they could go 20 minutes down the road and get $20,000 more money. Wouldn’t you go? I would.”

You can watch Gonzalez defend her record and hear Gaines’ response here.

Closing remarks

Commissioner Tiffany Taylor
Commissioner Tiffany Taylor

At the end of the meeting, Taylor gave some closing remarks.

“When I ran for commission, I ran for community engagement,” Taylor said. “I feel like because we are the east side, and we are predominantly Black, we don’t get the opportunity to ask state reps or anybody any questions because they won’t come over here. Now was everybody’s concerns met, or got answers to all of their questions? I don’t think so.”

Athens has three other Republican representatives in the state legislature who were invited to this town hall. Representative Marcus Wiedower could not make it due to a family emergency. Senator Bill Cowsert never responded to the invitation, and Senator Frank Ginn said he would attend but failed to do so without giving a reason.

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