City DopeNews

City Dope

Situation Now All Fixed Up: The “Sanford Snafu,” which prevented cyclists traveling from North to South Campus from riding through the only central pathway between the two, was resolved by adding a new contraflow bike lane on Sanford Drive over winter bre

Out of Order: Where can we begin to address Mayor Nancy Denson’s conduct at last week’s mayor and commission agenda setting session? The Dope remains agape over what he and the few dozen other people attending that meeting witnessed, but let’s start by giving the mayor what little benefit of the doubt she deserves under the circumstances. At the beginning of the meeting, two of the people who had shown up at City Hall to register their opposition to a proposed downtown development designed to include a 94,000-square-foot Walmart spoke out of turn from the gallery to ask when they would have an opportunity to comment on Walmart, which was inappropriate and against meeting rules. They were nonetheless politely indulged by the mayor, who informed them that there was no item on the agenda pertaining to Walmart, and the meeting proceeded without further disruption (unless one considers the passing out and holding up of anti-Walmart signs a disruption).

There is no reasonable excuse for Denson’s subsequent actions. As she far too often does, the mayor thoroughly mismanaged the meeting, failing to call for public comment on items not on the consent agenda—an omission that still had not been corrected or pointed out by any commissioner when Denson attempted to move on to items related to planning. Rightly confused by the mayor’s inept handling of the agenda, Melissa Link, a seasoned community activist with a long history of interacting with the government, raised her hand and asked, from the gallery, whether there would be another public comment period. Commissioner Doug Lowry told her there would not be, at which point, with no one behind the rail pointing out the mistake, two or three more people in the gallery spoke up to do so. Only then did Denson realize her error and open the podium for input.

Link rose to comment on an item detailing the mayor and commission’s goals and objectives for the coming year, specifically an objective pertaining to tax allocation districts—a tool that has been widely discussed as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations with Selig, the developer of the Walmart property. When it became clear that Link’s comment related directly to reducing the scale and impact of the Selig project, Denson cut her off, saying it was not relevant to the item at hand. Link insisted on continuing even after Denson told her a second time to stop, which prompted the mayor to direct the police officer in the chamber to approach her. As Link hurriedly finished her remarks with the armed officer moving toward her, she urged those in the audience who agreed with her to stand. “Anyone who stands up, we’ll have to ask you to leave,” said Denson. “The podium is closed.” At that point, order broke down in the chamber, with audience members openly objecting to what they called suppression of their right to speak to their government.

It is flatly astonishing that, faced with either allowing ambiguously—far from clearly—inappropriate speech at a public meeting or deploying a policeman to shut it down, the mayor of Athens thought it better to err on the side of the latter option. Denson has already come under fire—if not nearly harshly enough—for calling an executive session of the Economic Development Foundation that was illegally used for the broad discussion which led to the abandonment of the Blue Heron River District initiative in order to clear the way for the very development project on which Link was commenting. That project would have a colossal impact on this community, and Selig has made it very clear that it intends to use every back channel available to push it through as planned, with as little meaningful involvement from citizens and their representatives as possible. Given the quickly diminishing number of opportunities those citizens have to address those representatives before the project becomes truly the “done deal” its backers claim it already is, Denson’s authoritarian stance on public input was wildly misapplied.

This episode shouldn’t be taken as yet another of Denson’s countless “harmless” procedural blunders and lapses of transparency, like allowing—earlier that same day—her newly appointed economic development task force to hold its initial meeting before its membership, much less its convening, had been publicly announced. For the mayor to use the force of her office so aggressively to arrest public speech on such an urgently pressing matter is a vivid illustration of her priorities, which do not include an open discourse on matters crucial to the community when big money is at stake for the special people who have her ear. That should be noted well, and acted upon accordingly.

Belly of the Beast: With our elected officials either actively facilitating Selig’s efforts or passively awaiting an opportunity to intervene that may never come, it’s time for the people of Athens to take our objections to this disastrous monolith directly to Walmart. The prospective anchor tenant has thus far remained insulated from the wide public outcry over the development by Selig’s pretense of “engaging with the community” on the issues it presents. That coddling has to end.

Let’s start with Glen Wilkins, Walmart’s senior manager of public affairs and government relations in this region who told the Athens Banner-Herald in September that he wasn’t aware of any interest the company had in further colonizing this city. Wilkins isn’t returning the Dope’s calls, but maybe you’ll have better luck. Drop him a line at (770) 962-7909 and ask if his company is aware that more than 17,000 people have signed an online petition in opposition to the building being designed for it here, or if Walmart is concerned about the perception that it’s attempting to obliterate the cultural heart of one of the world’s most iconic music towns.