City DopeNews

Let’s Talk About Commission Races


Photo Credit: Athens-Clarke County

Commissioners who look like George Maxwell could be an endangered species, thanks to Republicans’ redistricting.

With the March qualifying period fast approaching, I spent part of Friday tracking down the five incumbent commissioners—Doug Lowry, George Maxwell, Jared Bailey, Kathy Hoard and Kelly Girtz—who are up for re-election next year to see if they will run again.

I’ve heard rumors of potential candidates in all of those districts except Girtz’s District 9, a wedge running from Prince Avenue northeast to the county line. Other than Pulaski Heights, it’s not an area known for political activism, and most Pulaski residents are probably pretty happy with him. (He is running for re-election.)

We’ll start hearing from those other candidates once the incumbents announce their intentions. While candidates could very well opt to challenge one or more incumbents, their decisions get a lot easier if it’s an open seat.

The most interesting races will likely be in Maxwell’s District 3. Once an African American stronghold, it’s now ripe for the picking by a white progressive. The district still includes the majority-black Rocksprings and Hancock Corridor neighborhoods, but the district map former state Rep. Doug McKillip rammed through the legislature last year added Cobbham and Boulevard, diluting the African American vote.

Maxwell enjoyed support from white progressives when he ran twice against Alvin Sheats, a much more conservative black candidate. He’s done a good job representing his new constituents, strongly supporting the Buena Vista Historic District, for example. Still, it’d be a tough race against, say, a Tony Eubanks or Melissa Link—potentially leaving Athens with just one black commissioner, in spite of McKillip’s stated intent to boost minority representation.

Maxwell has not made up his mind whether he will run. “I’m pondering it, thinking about it,” he said. “I’ll probably have a decision next week.”

Reapportionment could make District 5 an interesting race as well. Overwhelming support from Cobbham and Boulevard put Bailey over the top in 2010. Now, those neighborhoods are in District 3, and District 5 is more rural and more conservative. If the map looked like this three years ago, Dave Hudgins would have creamed him.

Bailey told Flagpole he is leaning toward running. “I am planning to, which doesn’t absolutely mean I will, but I am planning to run for re-election,” he said.

If he does, expect his residency to be an issue. Bailey keeps a house on Sunset Drive, but his wife has one in Oconee County.

Lowry said he intends to run again in District 1 in eastern Clarke County, but his crusade against the Solid Waste Department has led to speculation that he’ll draw opposition. 

Hoard said that this term, her third, will be her last, making her Five Points district an open seat. 

McNeely Resigns: Keith McNeely, director of the Athens-Clarke County Housing and Community Development (formerly Human and Economic Development) Department, rather abruptly gave notice last week that he will resign effective next month.

McNeely did not return calls seeking comment by press time, and an ACC news release gave no reason for his departure. Sources differ on whether he freely resigned or was given a choice of quitting or being fired, but it sounds as if his departure is related to his job performance.

“There were definitely commissioners who questioned his continued employment with Athens-Clarke County,” Bailey said.

HCD’s primary purpose is to award and oversee federal grants for affordable housing, social services and infrastructure in impoverished neighborhoods. Under McNeely, the department recommended continued funding for agencies that clearly weren’t getting the job done. Grants for affordable housing construction went unspent for long stretches of time. And contracts were often sloppily written, drawing scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, sources said. New-ish assistant manager Blaine Williams, McNeely’s direct supervisor, apparently has been asking around about him for some time.

Manager Alan Reddish said he will appoint an interim director next week and a permanent one within 60 days. Although there are undoubtedly many qualified candidates out there, a good in-house choice would be Programs Administrator Rob Trevena, who has 20 years of experience with HCD and is respected in the nonprofit community.

He may be the wrong color, though. Since unification, there has been a tacit agreement that HED’s director would be African American. Reddish’s predecessor, Al Crace, tried to appoint a white director in 2000. She quit under pressure from then-Mayor Doc Eldridge a year later, paving the way for McNeely’s hiring; then Eldridge ensured that Crace himself was not reappointed manager.

It’s not like we live in a post-racial era—but race might not be quite the issue it was in Athens 12 years ago. At least, I hope not.

High-Rise Hotel: Best Western recently filed plans for a seven-story tower at its West Broad Street-North Milledge Avenue motel.

The company wants to replace a pool and an office building with the new tower, but the motel should stay around the same size105 rooms—because part of a guest building will be torn down to make way for parking, according to ACC planner Gavin Hassemer. The project probably won’t require a rezoning or variance because it appears to be under the area’s 65-foot height limit, he said.

Although the tower will, as Hassemer put it, “probably stand out” among the neighborhood’s one- and two-story commercial buildings, planners expect more development along Broad Street similar to the new medical offices out toward Alps Road. “From Milledge Avenue to downtown, we do anticipate buildings going up that are three, four, five, six stories,” he said.

While the corridor could use some redevelopment, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say not everyone would be happy with that.

Auditor Watch: It’s been four months since Mayor Nancy Denson and the commission sacked county auditor John Wolfe in connection with his Athens Downtown Development Authority report that either took too long to finish or didn’t give the ADDA board sufficient political cover to justify getting rid of former executive director Kathryn Lookofsky (depending on whom you ask). Given McNeely’s aforementioned departure and Commissioner Doug Lowry’s recent efforts to smear ACC Solid Waste Director Jim Corley, now might be a good time to ask: Where’s Wolfe’s replacement?