What has Athens’ progressive commission accomplished?

In 2018, ACC Mayor and Commission candidates endorsed by the progressive group Athens for Everyone swept the local elections in a “political earthquake” felt around the state. The progressive momentum continued into 2020 with wins for Sheriff John Q Williams, District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez and others.

Three years later, political newcomers like Commissioners Tim Denson and Patrick Davenport are now incumbents planning their re-election campaigns. Incumbency may provide a substantial advantage, but if they choose to run again, they’ll do so in a very different political context.

The Athens Republican Party is now active and appears better organized than they have been in the past. Composing about 30% of Athens’ voters, they will surely be eager to regain representation on the ACC Commission. At the same time, some leftists have become disillusioned with the pace of progress and may no longer have confidence in the local government.

Athens’ voters will have an important choice to make next year. We will get to decide whether to continue with the commission’s current progressive leadership or head in another direction.

Progressive campaign literature might try to convince you that your choice will mean the world of difference between things as monumental as poverty and prosperity or justice and injustice. But the truth is more subtle than that. The commission’s powers are greatly limited by the state government. Furthermore, tackling long-standing issues like poverty is very challenging even in the best of situations.

That being said, voters nonetheless have high expectations for their local elected officials. Before we make our decision, voters will want to know what Athens’ progressive mayor and commission has accomplished over the past three years. Is there real progress underway towards fighting poverty and eliminating injustice?

I’ll review the commission’s accomplishments as a body in the following categories and you can judge for yourself.

Affordable Housing

  • Redevelopment of Bethel Homes
  • Inclusionary zoning policy (in progress)
  • Recommendations from the Planning Commission (in progress)

The mayor and commission made a $44 million investment in affordable housing with SPLOST 2020 which will mostly go towards rebuilding Bethel Midtown Village. Dubbed the North Downtown Athens Project, this redevelopment will double the number of subsidized units in the Bethel area. 

Beyond this one project, more federal dollars are now available from the American Rescue Plan and potentially also from an upcoming federal infrastructure package. The commission has not yet decided how this money will be spent, but further investment in affordable housing seems likely in coming years.

On the other hand, none of this will be enough to meet the growing need for affordable housing in Athens. That’s why the commission has also been aggressive in asking developers to contribute to Athens’ stock of affordable units. Perhaps they’ve even been too aggressive – for example, one development planned for Lexington Road has been criticized despite the inclusion of affordable units at the commission’s request.

These negotiations with developers mark the beginning of an inclusionary zoning policy which will provide incentives to include a certain percentage of affordable units in each new development. The policy hasn’t yet been made official, but it’s clear the commission is headed in this direction. That’s a big change from the way things used to be – previous commissioners argued that such a policy was impossible or undesirable and they failed to take action to stop rising rents.

Finally, the planning commission made recommendations for the encouragement of affordable housing in Athens at the request of Mayor Kelly Girtz. This is a positive step, but there hasn’t been much follow-through. That’s probably because the ACC Department of Housing and Community Development is currently stretched beyond capacity and commissioners likewise have been forced to focus on other issues first, such as COVID relief.

Climate Justice

  • 100% Athens commitment
  • Community energy fund

In 2019, the mayor and commission resolved to achieve 100% renewable energy for the local government by 2035 and for the entire community by 2050. 

They plan to achieve this goal in two ways that will “redress historical inequities.” First, they plan to hire people from “within marginalized communities” to join the clean energy workforce. Second, they intend to help those with low incomes lower their power bills by improving the energy efficiency of their homes and prioritizing low-income communities for renewable power installations.

Similar to the situation with affordable housing, this work has been slow to move forward. But they are making progress through solar installations, energy efficiency improvements, a new sustainable building policy and the establishment of a community energy fund. The community energy fund is a plan to take revenue from utility franchise fees and redirect it to help low-income people better insulate their homes to reduce future power bills.

Criminal Justice Reform

  • End of cash bail for local ordinances
  • Civilian oversight board for police (in progress)
  • Mental health co-responder teams / Non-police crisis response teams

Reforming our criminal justice system has been a major topic of interest in Athens and around the country after the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and the five fatal police shootings in Athens in 2019. But it’s another area in which change has been slower than reformers hoped.

On the plus side, the commission ended cash bail for local ordinances and recently, they’ve made progress on establishing a civilian oversight board for police.

On the other hand, they’ve been unable to decriminalize cannabis, something which nearly every progressive commissioner promised during their campaigns. They also tried and failed to end the practice of unpaid inmate labor, which continues in Athens to this day.

Cannabis decriminalization is being blocked by ACC Solicitor General C. R. Chisholm, who promises to ignore a “parallel ordinance” for decriminalization even if passed by the commission. Likewise, the Georgia Department of Corrections has forbidden Athens to pay inmates for their labor, even with local dollars.

Despite these setbacks, Athens-Clarke County remains a leader on criminal justice reform in the southeast with innovative programs like accountability courts, diversion initiatives and the Jerry NeSmith mental health co-responder teams. Commissioners have supported these initiatives through increased funding and have gone even further, bringing in new ideas from around the country. In this year’s budget, they included funding for a non-police crisis response unit modeled after the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon.

If successful, this new program has the potential to transform our concept of public safety by sending medics and social workers to non-violent crisis situations instead of armed police.

Crisis Relief

  • Local resiliency package
  • Distribution of federal funds
  • Official homeless camp (in progress)
  • Eviction prevention program (in progress)

The COVID-induced economic recession that started in 2020 is still being felt around the country. Millions remain at risk of eviction while the cost of housing and other assets continue to balloon, stemming in part from low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve combined with unprecedented federal deficits.

But it could have been much worse. Quick action by Congress to pass the CARES Act (and later, the American Rescue Plan) saved the country from total economic breakdown. Locally, commissioners bickered but finally agreed on several effective ways to distribute this relief money and even contributed millions of local dollars to the effort.

In July 2020, the commission passed a $5.8 million “resiliency package” that included $2.7 million in food assistance, $1 million for a revolving small business loan fund and $900,000 for local nonprofits serving people in need. Later that year, they distributed $4.6 million in CARES funding to meet community needs; $1.8 million went to various local nonprofits to continue rental, utilities and food assistance, $2.1 million was granted to struggling businesses and $0.5 million went to support healthcare clinics and at-home assistance.

More recently, the commission approved an official homeless encampment to provide shelter for those without any other options. They also have begun implementing a new eviction prevention program modeled after Gwinnett County’s Project Reset. Unfortunately, the latter program was delayed by bickering on the commission and the high workload placed on ACC staff, meaning it was not in place by the time the nationwide eviction moratorium ended.

Economic Justice

  • Neighborhood Leaders program
  • Athens Community Corps
  • $15 an hour minimum wage for the local government

Fighting Athens’ high poverty rate is an extremely difficult task that nevertheless has been a major goal for commissioners. So far, they’ve managed limited progress with a few promising but small-scale programs.

The first of these came out of a vague anti-poverty initiative back in 2019 called the “prosperity package.” After months of discussion, only one program, Neighborhood Leaders, ended up being funded by the package with the remainder of the funding going towards the “resiliency package” mentioned above. Neighborhood Leaders is a community organizing initiative designed to disseminate information and connect people to resources which they might not be aware of or might have difficulty applying for on their own.

In 2020, the commission started the Athens Community Corps. This is a workforce development program that offers participants a full-time, living wage job completing various community projects and gaining skills to further their professional careers. It’s a pilot program that may be continued in future years if it proves successful.

Perhaps most significantly, the commission upped the minimum pay rate for local government employees to $15 an hour in the most recent budget. This means that all ACC employees, including part-time and seasonal workers, now receive a living wage for their labor. Commissioners would love to expand this minimum wage so that it applies to all workers countywide, but setting local minimum wages for private businesses is forbidden by the state government.

Public Health

  • Shelter-in-place order
  • Mask mandate
  • Vaccine directive for local government workers
  • Vaccine incentives

Athens’ initial response to the pandemic was quick, decisive and has been among the most robust in the state. The Athens government issued a shelter-in-place order and a mask mandate before most other cities in Georgia. They responded to the evolving needs of local businesses in a number of ways, including by providing outdoor dining areas for restaurants. The commission continued to revisit these policies, keeping them up-to-date with the latest guidance from the CDC as the pandemic continued.

Notably, Girtz in particular did not hesitate to speak out in both open letters and on national TV when Governor Brian Kemp stood in the way of common-sense safety measures like mask requirements.

Recently, the mayor and commission have continued their work in fighting the pandemic by directing all local government employees to become vaccinated. They’ve also partnered with the Department of Public Health to provide financial incentives for Athenians to get vaccinated.

Overall, their record in dealing with the pandemic shows a commitment to public health and an evidence-based worldview which is shared by all commissioners. That by itself is something positive which we shouldn’t take for granted.

Social Justice

  • Anti-Discrimination ordinance
  • Disparity study (in progress)
  • Removal of a confederate monument
  • Resolution in support of the Latinx community / Policy change around driver’s licenses
  • Linnentown resolution / Justice and Memory Committee

Promoting social justice has been a key plank on progressive commissioners’ platforms in recent years, and they’ve made some progress towards that end. For example, commissioners passed a comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance which has been a major demand of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement since 2016. 

They’re also looking more closely at discrimination within their own organization through a disparity study funded in the most recent budget. If disparities in procurement policies in the hiring of, for example, white and Black contractors are found, they could then start to be rectified. Once a disparity is established, the local government could prioritize minority-owned businesses to receive future government contracts.

Next is something that’s important for symbolic reasons — the removal of a confederate monument, an overt symbol of white supremacy, from downtown Athens. This happened in spite of a state law passed just a year earlier to stop progressive mayors like Girtz from doing just that. With some legal help from ACC Attorney Judd Drake, Girtz was able to remove it anyway without too much controversy.

The commission also passed two notable resolutions in recent years, one focusing on the Latinx community after the tragic El Paso shooting in 2019 and the other which was an apology for Athens’ treatment of Black residents during the urban renewal period of the 1960s. Both resolutions are more than just words; they represent specific local government commitments.

The resolution in support of the Latinx community was read by Girtz in tandem with Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens activist Beto Mendoza, alternating between English and Spanish. The reading turned into an emotional moment that left a lasting impression on those in attendance. It coincided with a change in policy for the police department, who announced around this time that they would no longer arrest people simply for driving a car without a driver’s license (as long as they can provide another means of identification, like a passport). 

It may not sound like much, but this change has been particularly important for the undocumented community since the state government refuses to allow undocumented residents to apply for a driver’s license.

The resolution dealing with urban renewal also includes specific steps towards a just society. The first of these steps is a formal apology for the city’s role in acts of “institutionalized white racism and terrorism” committed against former residents of Linnentown, which was a majority Black neighborhood off Baxter Street. Second, the resolution calls for redress and deliberately includes the idea of reparations for those who were harmed, many of whom still live in Athens. Exactly what form the reparations will take is up to the Justice and Memory Committee, which includes former residents of Linnentown who will study the issue and make yearly recommendations during the budget cycle.

While the credit for these victories should largely go to the activists who have been pushing for them for years, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of having a sympathetic ear within the local government.

Transportation

  • Supporting alternative transportation in TSPLOST
  • Opening College Square to pedestrians
  • Zero-fare transit

Lastly, the commission has also made some significant progress in the area of alternative transportation. Passed by the previous mayor and commission, TSPLOST 2018 has allowed for continued investment in sidewalks, bike lanes and rail-trails throughout Athens. 

The current commission has supported those investments and they’ve also been responsible for opening college square to pedestrians as well as moving to a zero-fare transit system (both of which will be permanent). In another significant development, Athens Transit announced that they are in the planning stages to build three new bus transfer stations. These transfer stations will allow for a completely new and more efficient set of routes — this is the biggest bus expansion in Athens since Sunday bus service.

What commissioners are most proud of

I asked the mayor and commission about the accomplishment(s) that they’re most proud of over the last three years, and this is what they said:

Mayor Kelly Girtz

Mayor Kelly Girtz

“Broadly, among the greatest work we have done is connecting residents to resources that were previously in shorter supply. Examples are: the wave of local housing opportunity… [and] dramatically increased access [for transit].”

“Broadly, among the greatest work we have done is connecting residents to resources that were previously in shorter supply. Examples are:

·        The wave of local housing opportunity. This includes the North Downtown redevelopment, where there will be more than five hundred additional beds of below-market-rate housing, implemented in a manner that provides every existing resident with the opportunity to stay for the long-term (rather than permanently displace residents, as was the trend in Atlanta from the mid-90s until just a few years ago). This also includes the soon-to-be unveiled incentive program for redevelopment of commercial parcels to increase density on them in exchange for a portion of the beds being permanently affordable. This will bring needed housing to Athens by utilizing tracts with no current residential units, making a range of price-points available on public transit lines and accessible to shopping, schools, and healthcare facilities.

·        Speaking of transit, our transportation systems have dramatically increased access. As Athens Transit moved from k12 student and senior fare-free status, to fare-free for all, locations along the system are opened to the benefit of employees, employers, shoppers, store owners and others. Similarly, the sidewalk and trail network as allowed many thousands of residents access to public spaces that were previously unsafe for travel. Stand at the current terminus of the Firefly Trail coming out of downtown, and you are greeted by the Hallmark trailer park, where kids previously had no safe place to play, ride a bike, or go with friends to buy a bag of potato chips.

·        From our own internal efforts – the $15/hour wage floor, the public safety pay plan, the Athens Community Corp program to introduce ACC employment to under-served residents, to our attraction of ByoPlanet, RWDC, and Bohringer-Ingleheim (all high-wage employers building on the intellectual capital here, to the work with SBDC and others to host “contractor academies”, we have brought greater economic opportunity to Athenians.

·        Working with local healthcare and service providers (FC-CIS Neighborhood Leaders, Advantage Behavioral, Public Health) to connect people to physical and mental health supports, we have kept more people out of emergency rooms and jail beds, and kept the population safer in numerous ways. We have the lowest COVID mortality rate of any metro center in the state, had only three murders last year (compared to just slightly larger Macon’s 50 – – we are 130k population to their 150k), and continue to see dropping numbers of births to teens (over 80 births/1000 teens 25 years ago, fewer than 20/1000 today).”

Commissioner Patrick Davenport

Commissioner Patrick Davenport

“One of the projects that I am most proud of was working with Solid Waste to create a county wide recycling program. All ACC events must use recyclable / compostable / reusable materials. I am fond of this because my family members live next to the landfill and the less we send to the landfill the better it is for our environment and my family.”

Commissioner Tim Denson

Commissioner Tim Denson

“I am most proud of achieving Zero-Fare Public Transit. Removing barriers to public transit is so worthwhile because the return on that investment is felt environmentally, economically, equitably, relieving our infrastructure along with health & safety. With zero-fare transit, we are helping all Athenians get to where they need to go while leaving a little more money in the pockets of those who need it most. I am also very relieved to finally see a Human Rights Committee and non-discrimination ordinance coming together.”

Commissioner Carol Myers

Commissioner Carol Myers

“I’m particularly proud of the following: the adoption of a new green building code for ACC buildings, money in the budget to hire a 100% Athens Renewable director for the sustainability office and discussions with developers from the Classic Center to the North Athens / Bethel Homes redevelopment about their efforts towards making their developments greener and more energy sustainable.”

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