The three candidates for Athens-Clarke County mayor broadly agreed on a number of issues during the race’s first forum last week, but staked out differing positions on law enforcement and economic development.
The forum, sponsored by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, was held Mar. 12, just three days after the official qualifying period ended, and focused mainly on poverty. At least three other forums have already been scheduled, and candidates said there could be as many as eight before the May 22 election.
Many in the crowd booed former commissioner Harry Sims when he defended Sheriff Ira Edwards for detaining undocumented immigrants at the county jail past their release dates so Immigration and Customs Enforcement can deport them. “If he follows his oath of office, I have no problem with what he does,” Sims said.
Business owner Richie Knight, meanwhile, said he would never urge the sheriff to break the law, but he would urge Edwards not to break up families.
“I’m a strong proponent of law enforcement that works and is constitutional,” Commissioner Kelly Girtz said, but ICE’s holds are neither, as courts have ruled they violate the Fifth Amendment. “Having a parent taken away from you at 9 years old is not something you recover from,” he said. “It scars you for life, and we should not be doing it.”
But Sims later defended undocumented immigrants as part of the Athens community. “We need to keep them here,” he said. “Some people have been here for 30 years, and they’re getting kicked out.”
Sims urged caution on passing a “parallel ordinance” reducing the penalty for marijuana possession to a small fine, as cities like Atlanta and Clarkston have done. The ordinance could only be enforced by ACC police, while other agencies like the sheriff’s office and Georgia State Patrol would continue to enforce the state law, “so we need to be really careful about that,” he said.
Most people who are arrested for smoking pot are doing it in public; people in their homes are rarely arrested, Sims said. “You put yourself, sometimes, in harm’s way,” he said.
Both Knight and Girtz supported the parallel ordinance. “It’s unacceptable to keep filling our prisons,” Knight said.
Seeking to alleviate concerns about pot as a gateway drug, Girtz cited a study in Washington that found that decriminalization did not lead to an increase in teenage drug use. But arrests can set young people on the wrong path, he said. “I can tell you, after having seen students spend several nights in jail for petty offenses, we need to take a different route,” said Girtz, a former teacher who’s currently an administrator at an alternative charter school.
Discrimination in policing is wrong, the candidates agreed, and they all supported funding and training for officers to prevent it. But while Girtz and Knight enthusiastically endorsed a local civil rights committee with wide-ranging powers to investigate claims of discrimination, Sims—an African American who grew up in the 1960s—was skeptical that such a committee would be effective. “We’ve gotten so caught up in the color of your skin and all these things,” he said.
Economic development was another focus at the forum. One question asked how ACC can stem the tide of businesses moving to Oconee County. It’s cyclical, said Sims. “There’s a piper they’re going to pay, and it’s starting to show up now,” he said. Commercial development on Epps Bridge is straining Oconee’s infrastructure, which will eventually lead to higher taxes. “As a result, you may see them moving back across the river,” he said.
Growth along 316 has been inevitable since the highway was built, but the loss of businesses on Atlanta Highway has been more than offset by growth downtown and on Highway 29, Girtz said, noting that sales tax collections are up $800,000 in ACC over last year. ACC should be revitalizing its gateway corridors to encourage new businesses, he said. Girtz also touted his work streamlining the permitting process.
While Girtz and Sims dismissed the idea that ACC is anti-business, Knight attacked the county for forcing business owners to jump through too many hoops. “At the end of the day, we have a government that’s known to be unfriendly to business,” he said. But Sims said people who do business in various cities and states have told him otherwise.
UGA was another topic where the candidates split. Sims called the university “a great partner.” As an example, he said the school of social work waived its usual fee for work it did for a youth development task force Sims chairs. “We are seeing some changes,” he said. “We have a president [Jere Morehead] who really wants to move forward and be a part of this community more than people realize.”
Likewise, Girtz cited the university’s help with programs at the ACC library and local schools.
But Knight called UGA “the elephant in the room” and said it often seems like it runs the city, when it should be the other way around. He called for UGA, which is tax-exempt, to make payments in lieu of taxes to fund affordable housing programs. “I think we need to go more toward incentivizing [developers] rather than penalizing, and stripping ordinances that don’t promote smart growth,” Knight said.
Girtz said he’d like to set aside $15 million over five years in the next SPLOST to pay for amenities like landscaping and stormwater mitigation to make housing more affordable. Other tools could include density bonuses (allowing developers to build more units than allowed if those units are affordable) and inclusionary zoning (requiring a certain number of units to be rented or sold at below-market rates).
All three candidates also said they favor freezing property taxes for seniors under a certain, unspecified income level—a policy Mayor Nancy Denson proposed in 2011, although without an income cap, that the commission unanimously rejected—as a way to help seniors on fixed incomes in gentrifying neighborhoods stay in their homes.
Ultimately, the answer to the affordable housing problem is jobs, Sims said. “[A lack of] jobs is the biggest problem we have,” he said. Tech jobs are nice, but ACC is overlooking jobs for ordinary citizens, he said.
As far as wages, “unfortunately, in local government, our hands are a little tied,” Knight said. (State law prohibits local governments from raising the minimum wage.) But ACC should be developing a more skilled workforce, he said.
Networking—connecting underprivileged youth to mentors in the business world—is important, Girtz said. He also proposed using tax allocation districts, where tax revenue from development is poured back into infrastructure, and community improvement districts, where landowners vote to tax themselves, as tools to draw development. And the employers who benefit from those tools should be required to pay a living wage, he said. As mayor, he said he wouldn’t go after $9–$12 an hour jobs, but rather $50,000–$80,000 a year jobs.
Sims agreed with Girtz on those points. “When you have children who wake up in the morning and don’t see their parents because they are working two or three jobs, we’ve got to change that,” he said.