The qualifying period for a March special election to fill the vacant District 2 seat on the Athens-Clarke County Commission ended Dec. 21 with just two candidates on the ballot: Melissa Link and Kirrena Gallagher.
Gallagher represented District 2 on the Clarke County Board of Education until last Thursday, when she resigned her seat to run for commission. But the BOE’s District 2 has little in common with the commission’s new District 2, as redrawn by local Republican legislators during post-Census redistricting earlier this year. Commission District 2 is now mostly made up of what used to be District 3, represented by Link for eight years until Republicans moved her district out from under her.
While a special election is required to fill the rest of former commissioner Mariah Parker’s term, the school board has a different process. The remaining eight board members will select a new member to serve the remaining two years of Gallagher’s term from among District 2 residents who apply. Anyone who is interested in serving should mail, email or hand-deliver a biographical sketch or resume, letter of interest and up to two letters of support to Board Manager Lisa Palmer at 595 Prince Ave., Athens, GA 30601 or email@example.com. The deadline is 4:45 p.m. on Jan. 6.
In addition to Gallagher, District 5 representative Kara Dyckman and District 9 representative Tawana Mattox are also leaving the board. Both served during a tumultuous period marked by the controversial tenure and exit of former superintendent Demond Means, two subsequent superintendent searches, bickering amongst board members and an investigation by accreditation agency Cognia, and endured much abuse from pro-Means factions of the public along the way—particularly Mattox, the only Black board member to openly oppose Means.
“We didn’t always agree, but I like how in the end we agreed to disagree at times,” Mattox said at the board’s Dec. 15 meeting. “I think we’ve truly grown up these past few years, learned a lot, and I’m ready to get back on the ground, so I’ll see you on the other side of that podium.”
Dyckman noted that the end of their terms also marks the end of a period where the school board was made up entirely of women. Former ACC commissioner Tim Denson won the May election to take over her seat, while Piedmont College education professor Mark Evans will replace Mattox.
“I’m very thankful for this experience, although it’s had its ups and downs. But I do think we are in such a better place now than when we started,” Dyckman said. “I will always be proud to have been part of this group of amazing women—I know it wasn’t always all women, but it was pretty awesome.”
Three commission seats are also turning over, with Denson in District 5 and Russell Edwards in District 7 also leaving under the same circumstances as Link. “I can’t imagine how tough it’s been for you to not have had the opportunity to run again, as we all thought you’d be able to do,” Commissioner Carol Myers told them at the end of their last meeting on Dec. 13.
It marks the end of an era. What is widely regarded as the most progressive mayor and commission in local history is no more. Link, Denson and Edwards will be replaced by Tiffany Taylor, Dexter Fisher and John Culpepper come January. “Transformative” was the word used by Mayor Kelly Girtz and several commissioners to describe the outgoing group, which—agree with them or not—at least attempted to tackle the serious issues facing the community that previous administrations wouldn’t touch.
“A lot of people think this commission is too progressive, too left, too crazy. I am proud of the work we’ve done together. We’ve transformed Athens and made some dramatic, awesome changes to this community that my one-day great-great grandkids will be able to enjoy,” Commissioner Patrick Davenport said.
While many of those initiatives, from the Bethel Homes redevelopment to the Classic Center arena to completion of the Firefly Trail, won’t come to fruition for years, the ground has at least been laid.
“We’ve begun countywide conversations, even strategic planning on some of the most pressing problems facing this community—not just one, but most of them,” Manager Blaine Williams said, including broadband access, youth development, workforce development, mental health, affordable housing and homelessness.
“It has really been transformative work in extraordinarily difficult times,” Link said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide social and political upheaval of the past few years.
Link, of course, may find herself back behind the rail come April. “Y’all haven’t heard the last of me,” she said.
Denson closed out the meeting with a slogan from his rabble-rousing days as an Occupy Athens activist: “The people united can never be defeated.”
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