Athens-Clarke County is sliced and diced into five state legislative districts (yes, gerrymandering). We have three state House districts and two state senate districts. Only one of those districts is predominantly Democratic, because the others have been drawn to include big rural areas outside of ACC in order to dilute the Democratic vote.
In Clarke County, typically 70% of voters vote for Democratic candidates. If the districts were drawn in a way to allow our voter’s priorities to be represented in the state legislature, we’d be sending two Democratic state House reps and one Democratic state senator to the Capitol.
But because of the gerrymandering done by our GOP-controlled state legislature, we now have four Republicans and one Democrat in the legislature, supposedly representing Athens. Only we all know that the GOP state reps don’t care about Athens, and in fact at times have worked to actively undermine our elected officials and sovereignty.
Now they’re taking things to a whole new level. Normally, there’s a process by which our mayor and commissioners will ask the state lawmakers who represent ACC to pass a state law that affects only ACC, which entails our state delegation agreeing unanimously on the issue. For instance, in 2017 the mayor and commission wanted to expand the official borders of downtown so the Athens Downtown Development Authority could expand its tax base. Everyone agreed this was desirable, so they asked all the state legislators who represent parts of Athens to write up a bill making the change. All five legislators then agreed that it was a good idea and they would all vote for it, and the official borders of downtown were changed.
“It was a locally negotiated agreement, and not everyone got what they wanted,” said Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens), “but we worked together as a team and made it happen.”
This process of unanimity ensured that the elected leaders of Athens-Clarke County were the drivers of any state law written specifically for their county. If agreement was not unanimous, it would not even be brought up for a vote.
But now all that’s changed, because GOP state Reps. Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower changed how the five-person caucus composed works. They have made it so majority rules in all decisions regarding Athens and state law. This means that our lone Democratic representative, Frye, has no say whatsoever.
Gaines and Weidower have also decided to completely bypass our mayor and commissioners, writing new laws that the M&C have not requested and have no input on.
Gaines and Wiedower filed legal notices filed in our local paper indicating they would “reestablish and reconstitute the ACC Board of Elections.” (Our current board is dominated by Democrats, and evidently our GOP state reps would like to flip that.) The deadline passed Monday without them filing such a bill, but they could do so during next year’s legislative session.
The other bill would change the local homestead exemption to lower property taxes. This could have a significant effect on the smallest county in the state, where 50% of the land is owned by the state (UGA), the school district or churches and so pay no property taxes.
This last measure could be a reaction to ACC leadership’s efforts to create a special property tax freeze for low-income Athens homeowners to make it easier for them to stay in their homes and not be forced out by gentrification and rising taxes. As usual, the GOP wants to give a tax break to the people who need it the least. And this time, they’re willing to usurp local government control to do it.
This new power grab by Gaines and Wiedower has weighty implications for local control of Athens. The state government has control over commission and Board of Education districts, the Board of Education charter, the charter for the Board of Elections and the charter of Athens-Clarke County itself.
Until recently, all changes were driven by our locally elected officials. Not anymore.
Rep. Houston Gaines has also proposed a statewide law that would limit how municipalities are allowed to budget for their police departments. He is basically claiming that the city leaders we elected—in one of the most highly educated counties in the state—are inept and untrustworthy. Gaines, who received only 41% of the vote in ACC and who clearly has his ambitious eye on bigger things—remember that his vote was crucial to passing abortion restrictions a couple of years ago—has said ACC’s “radical” local government is “out of control” and “putting lives at risk.” This is the pretext he’s using to negate our elected leaders and silence our voices.
Not only that, but Gaines and Wiedower have concocted their plans behind closed doors, with no transparency whatsoever.
“I am deeply disappointed by the actions of the new delegation,” said Rep. Frye. “I understand it was a tough election for everyone but petty politics doesn’t serve anyone. I would hope we could move forward with the important task of getting Athens vaccinated and back to school and work.”
Call our legislative state reps to let them know what you think:
• Rep. Houston Gaines (R-117): 404-656-0298 or firstname.lastname@example.org
• Rep. Marcus Wiedower (R-119): 404-656-0325 or email@example.com
• Rep. Spencer Frye (D-118): 404-656-0265 or firstname.lastname@example.org
• Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-46): 404-463-1366 or email@example.com
• Sen. Frank Ginn (R-47): 404-656-4700 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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