Photo Credit: Nicole Adamson
Espousing an egalitarian platform to improve conditions in all Athens neighborhoods, ACC Commissioner Kelly Girtz kicked off his campaign for mayor with an outdoor rally at the Lyndon House Arts Center on Sept. 9.
“This is not an economy that will be great, if it’s only great for a few of us,” Girtz told around 100 supporters. (Athens-Clarke has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates at 38 percent, according to Census estimates.)
On paper, the powers of ACC’s mayor are not great. It’s the county manager who runs the government day-to-day, with commissioners setting policies, and the mayor votes only to break a tie, sets meeting agendas and proposes the annual budget in consultation with the manager. But the mayor also sets the public tone for the government and can make of the office, to some extent, what he or she will—former mayor Heidi Davison, a busy networker and conference-goer, was admired and sometimes criticized for her activism.
The nonpartisan mayor’s race will be held in May. It has attracted five candidates so far, “but it could be 10 by qualifying in March,” Girtz says. Among them is the only ACC commissioner who has served longer than Girtz’s 11 years: Harry Sims, first elected in 1991. Sims, quiet but knowledgeable at commission meetings, emphasizes his experience and proposes to unite the community. His conservative tendencies could make him an heir to current Mayor Nancy Denson’s supporters, and he could make history as Athens’ first black mayor. Both men have had teaching careers in the public schools, and both emphasize opportunities for young people. Sims is retired, and Girtz would give up (at least temporarily) his job at Foothills Education Charter High School, which partners with Northeast Georgia school districts to provide evening classes, if elected. It could be a horserace. The other candidates—Richie Knight, Antwon Stephens and Samuel Thomas—are relatively unknown at this point.
“I think it is underestimated what the mayor can do,” Girtz told Flagpole at the rally. Most influences on students occur outside of school, he told the crowd; he proposes to provide teenagers “actual jobs doing actual work.” No child, he said, deserves less of a chance than his own son. Girtz’s can-do platform, outlined at votegirtz.com, would reinvent unsafe neighborhoods (like Bethel Midtown Village) to provide affordable housing and business opportunities using federal tax credits and policies like inclusionary zoning. He would also encourage homeownership and wealth creation among “black and brown residents that have been historically neglected.”
“I’ve had my house on Pulaski Street over 20 years, and I couldn’t afford to move into that neighborhood today,” given the rise in prices, he told Flagpole. Some effects of gentrification can be mitigated, he says, by freezing taxes for homeowners of limited means over age 65.
“This is a town that will not stand for discrimination of any sort against anyone,” Girtz said. He also proposes to improve downtown’s architectural standards, insist on strict environmental standards and treat drug abuse as a health issue, “with the option of simple fines accompanied by an addiction screening for low-level drug possession.”