Removal of monument challenged by Confederate group

Mayor Kelly Girtz pledged two weeks ago that he would remove the Confederate monument standing at the intersection of College Avenue and Broad Street, but this is being challenged in court by the Sons of Confederate Veterans,

Confederate monument in downtown Athens
Photo by user Chuck on Flickr.com
CC BY-SA 2.0

Girtz’s pledge came after Black Lives Matters protesters used the monument as a focal point, giving speeches from its base and spray painting it with anti-police slogans. Girtz said he had wanted to remove it for years, and may finally get his chance.

But he has a lawsuit to face first.

Overcoming legal obstacles

A state law protects Confederate monuments in Georgia, preventing them from being moved except for their preservation or protection. While the law, passed in 2019, may have been written specifically to prevent Girtz himself (and other progressive mayors throughout the state) from doing exactly what he now intends, the loophole of “preservation and protection” may be enough to ensure the action is legal.

Additionally, Girtz and Drake have other arguments at their disposal:

The monument is a pedestrian safety hazard

The monument blocks mutual pedestrian, car and bus visibility as these three travel modes are negotiated at this particular intersection. ACC staff claims that O.C.G.A. § 50‐3‐1 authorizes relocation for construction purposes as well, which is why the removal is combined with a pedestrian safety project (see below).

The monument is a public safety hazard

Since protesters may one day try to pull it down, as they have in other cities, the monument is both in danger and a danger to the public. For example, protesters might be crushed as the monument topples.

The monument is not publicly owned after all?

ACC staff claim that they have “no records” that the monument “was ever transferred to public ownership.” SB 77 restricts the relocation of monuments owned by the public only.

(If they don’t own it, who does? Anyway, moving on.)

After consulting with ACC Attorney Judd Drake and establishing their legal defense, Girtz felt comfortable enough to place the removal of the monument on this month’s commission agenda.

Stealth mode activated

The agenda item, however, is obscured by the bland name “TSPLOST 2018 Project #9, Sub‐Project #2 – Pedestrian Safety Improvements.”

crowd of protesters outside city hall
Read about the comments the public gave here. Photo by Ashley Na

Despite the scores of people who spoke during public comment before Tuesday’s meeting, no one mentioned the Confederate monument. That could be because the public is shifting their focus to the 50/10 Plan, but it’s also perhaps due to the concealed nature of this agenda item, which one might otherwise expect to have been a hot topic for discussion.

Even so, there was one group who definitely noticed.

The Confederacy rises up

Sons of Confederate Veterans logoThe “Sons of Confederate Veterans, TRR Cobb Camp #97” is suing Athens-Clarke County in Superior Court because of the intention to remove the monument “from its place of honor in downtown.” They are calling for a judge to stop the removal, which they say would cause them “immediate and irreparable injury.”

Martin O’Toole, the lawyer representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, disputes the validity of ACC’s legal arguments, particularly the one about the monument being a danger to protesters.

“It’s hard to believe a valuable piece of history would be moved to protect lawbreakers from the consequences of their felonious vandalism,” he wrote the mayor and commission on June 6.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is an organization that pledges to “salute the Confederate flag with affection, reverence, and undying devotion to the cause for which it stands” as stated on their website. They don’t seem likely to back down easily, but neither does Mayor Girtz, who has acted with impressive speed and boldness to make good on his promise that the monument would come down.

If his plan isn’t quickly stopped by a judge, the monument will be moved to the end of Timothy Place, a dead-end road off of Macon Highway. This is close to the site of the only Civil War skirmish fought in Athens, the Battle of Barber Creek. From this location, the monument will also likely be visible for passing cars on the loop. (However, the inscription may be difficult to make out when driving at 70 mph hundreds of feet away.)

Pedestrian safety, outdoor dining opportunities

crosswalk widening plan
ACC staff’s plan to widen the crosswalk from 13′ to 18′.

The plan to move the monument is combined with a plan to widen the crosswalk at the UGA Arch to allow an extra 200 – 300 pedestrians cross safety per hour. As it stands now, pedestrians often have to wait at the light, or are even trapped in the median until traffic goes by, according to the roadway safety audit conducted by ACC staff. The plan would help them cross more quickly and also remove loose bricks which might be trip hazards. The plan will cost $350,000, paid for with funding from TSPLOST, a 1% sales tax approved by the voters in 2018.

The final part of the plan is to temporarily close College Square, the block of College Avenue closest to UGA, using a system of removable bollards for a cost of $100,000. A traffic study from 2016 shows that this would not slow traffic in the area much at all, a result which would be even more true now in a mostly empty downtown due to the effects of COVID-19 social distancing.

Nearby restaurants may be granted permits to allow dining outside (in the roadway), perhaps even including beer and alcohol sales although the details have yet to be worked out. It’s even possible that the closing of College Square will be permanent, but for now, the commission is considering a temporary six-month period only.

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