Businesses may reopen but commission asks Athens to stay home

Despite Governor Brian Kemp’s recent order allowing some “non-essential” businesses to re-open, the mayor and commission voted on Tuesday to extend the local emergency declaration here in Athens.

This extension allows ACC Manager Blaine Williams to keep some emergency powers until June 2, but it cannot contradict the statewide order. Kemp is allowing businesses such as bowling alleys and tattoo parlors to open, and the local government does not have the authority to force them to stay closed.

Even so, the commission is still requesting that all non-essential businesses remain closed and for Athenians to continue sheltering in place for the time being, citing the advice of medical experts.

“We can’t preempt the Governor unfortunately at this time,” said Commissioner Russell Edwards. “This is simply a recommended action for our citizens.”

The commission continues to press forward with coronavirus relief efforts. At this meeting, they voted to start a local authority tasked with distributing small loans to affected businesses, but commissioners lamented that they couldn’t do more.

“I would have liked to see this as a grant program rather than a loan program,” Commissioner Ovita Thornton said.

Unfortunately, a grant program would be forbidden by the state constitution’s gratuities clause — a familiar bugbear for this commission — which prevents giving taxpayer money directly to individuals or businesses.

Jesse Houle for ACC CommissionHowever, there are other options for providing relief. The commission is considering a $15,000 fund administered through the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission to finance local art projects.

The fund currently has enough money to provide 20 artists with $750 awards, and this funding might be increased by the time the mayor and commission vote to approve the plan on May 5. The Athens Cultural Affairs Commission will come up with a plan to distribute the money over the next week to support local artists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The last coronavirus-related item considered by the commission at this meeting was an amendment to the ACC charter relating to the local government’s police power that is available in an emergency.

This amendment would significantly expand powers retained by the local government for use in an emergency. These powers would include the ability to make contributions to charitable organizations and to provide relief to the indigent or impoverished as a way of promoting public safety and well-being.

According to Mayor Kelly Girtz, this will be done to provide further legal support to actions the local government is already taking, and also to speed up responses to future emergencies. The charter amendment process requires that it be presented to the public at two separate voting sessions before taking action. That means the commission will vote on this item no earlier than June 2.

One non-coronavirus item worth mentioning is that Verizon Wireless has threatened to sue Athens if the commission does not approve the construction of a cell tower on Nowhere Road.

A permit for this tower was rejected when nearby residents came out in force to speak out against it at a December commission meeting. They submitted a number of new comments for this meeting which were read into the record by Commissioner Tim Denson.

In addition, Commissioner Thornton, who also has constituents in the proposed area, took a firm stand in opposition to the tower despite the pending lawsuit.

“Anybody and everybody will trample over District 9,” she said. “This is a David and Goliath moment.”

The decision on the Verizon tower was pushed back to May 19.

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