May 23, 2012

City Dope

Athens News and Views

The not-very-disruptive tents pitched on a public sidewalk on Broad Street last fall by members of Occupy Athens. The ACC Commission is considering legislation that would restrict "urban camping," obviously aimed directly at the specific brand of protest s

This is the week the tangled mess Athens-Clarke County's local reapportionment process has been became a full-on cluster-snuggle. Qualifying for local elections, including ACC Commission races, begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday, May 23, a day and a half after the county received the verdict from the U.S. Justice Department that it had approved a dramatically reworked map of our county commission districts. Until then, candidates—and potential candidates—had no idea whether that verdict would come before qualifying, or under what map the elections would be conducted. This is due entirely to the way our state legislators—to continue the euphemism—have been snuggling with us for the past several months with regard to commission redistricting.

The legislators' map—one that changes the number of geographical districts in ACC from eight to 10, eliminating the two overlaying "superdistricts"—was passed and signed with no vetting at all by local citizens or officials, save the few who had the ears of Representatives Doug McKillip and Keith Heard. McKillip's self-serving motives have been more than well enough documented here and elsewhere, while Heard has aligned himself with a faction of African-American activists whose opposition to the superdistricts is so adamant that they are apparently willing to sacrifice actual black voting power on the commission—which the new map is very likely to do—in order to get rid of them. One of the most vocal of those activists has been Athens attorney Ken Dious, whose most recent public interaction with the commission culminated in his accusation that the commission's denial of a request to develop a Broad Street property he owned for a large Racetrac gas station had been racially motivated, despite the fact that in denying the request, the commission had taken the side of dozens of the property's neighbors—all of them black—who had repeatedly turned out at City Hall to object to the project.

The county submitted hundreds of pages of documentation pertaining to the redistricting process to the Justice Department in early April, and the mayor, all 10 commissioners and various citizens and groups have sent letters protesting the legislators' plan. But until a letter that was apparently sent last Thursday arrived Monday afternoon, local officials hadn't heard anything from Justice, which had a May 29 deadline to issue its decision. Now all the head scratching and contingency planning can cease—barring a lawsuit, which could still be brought in time to throw a wrench back into election preparations—but the damage has been done.

This situation has been minimally complicated for the incumbent commissioners who are running for reelection, all of whom reside within the boundaries of both their previous and redrawn districts (although District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby wasn't sure whether he'd be campaigning to represent half the county or one-tenth of it before finding out which map would be used). The same goes for the confirmed candidates in the open seats of District 4—David Ellison and Allison Wright—and District 6—Ron Winders and Jerry NeSmith. Hamby and District 8 Commissioner Andy Herod are both thus far unopposed.

But it's a different story in District 2, where there were rumors last week of as many as three potential candidates who would opt not to qualify, thwarted by the uncertainty over the boundaries: one who lives in the old district but is drawn out of the new one, and two who reside within the redrawn district lines but not the old ones. In light of his serious doubt that a quality candidate would emerge, Harry Sims, who had planned to retire after serving 22 years on the ACC Commission and Athens City Council, now says he will run again.

That's not a bad outcome, but it arises from the exact circumstances that were presented as a worst-case scenario when this all began. It's inexcusable that our local electoral process has been so disrupted by the machinations of a group of people who, while nominally representing Athens-Clarke County, have seldom given us the time of day when asked to advocate for our interests on the state level. Now that they've "helped" us through our local redistricting, those self-satisfied snugglers have made their excuses and moved on, leaving us trying in vain to fend off their unprecedented and unwanted affections.