City DopeNews

Mayoral Candidates Weigh In on Panhandlers, Confederate Monument

What should be done about the Confederate memorial on Broad Street? How can Athens retain people 26–34 years old? And what are you going to do about those pesky downtown panhandlers? These were some of the questions asked of Commissioner Kelly Girtz, former commissioner Harry Sims and business owner Richie Knight at a recent panel for mayoral candidates held at the Athens-Clarke County Library by the Athens Junior League.

Sims reminded everyone that the Broad Street memorial is owned by the state of Georgia, and that state legislators “have to be part of the solution.” It can’t just be moved away. He said at one time there were Ku Klux Klan members on one side of the memorial and blacks folks on the other, “and nobody cared about the monument.”

Girtz said during a visit to the Dachau concentration camp, he saw information placing the facility in context and talking about human rights. With that in mind, he believes the Confederate memorial would be better suited for a museum-ish setting that would explain its purpose and history—not on a public street.

Knight pointed out that it would cost money “to pick it up and move it.” He believes people could come up with the right strategies and that whatever is devised “needs to make sense for Athens,” which will demand a “unique solution.”

Panhandlers may be homeless folks “who have mental health needs,” said Sims. Putting money in a meter, a measure endorsed by the Athens Downtown Development Authority, just won’t work, he said. ACC police officers need to become more visible downtown “in order to reduce demand.”

Knight said he lives and works downtown and has served on the board of the ADDA, and he has first-hand experience with panhandlers. He said that downtown businesses haven’t been brought to the table to discuss what can be done about the panhandlers. Some business owners complain that their customers have been harassed by aggressive people asking for money. He wants the Athens community to be educated about aggressive panhandling.

Girtz said a review of ordinances from other communities trying to deal with panhandlers showed that the local government can’t restrict panhandlers unless they’re aggressive. He serves on a legislative committee that crafts local ordinances and has attended sessions with business people, police officers, local government professionals and United Way members. He believes mentally ill panhandlers should be steered to resources where they can get help.

To attract and retain 26–34-year-olds, Sims wants to “create an atmosphere of jobs with living wages. The kids we lose are the ones who are productive.” He said there needs to be good jobs, both professional jobs and ones in which someone “uses their hands,” such as plumbing, electrical and HVAC.

To retain post-college young people, Girtz said the community is at a good point with UGA emphasizing entrepreneurship. A soon-to-be downtown incubator should help with that. But to keep people in town, Athens needs jobs.

As a 28-year-old, Knight believes Athens is a great place for college students and for those with families, ‘but in between, it’s not so great.” Everyone leaves after college, he said, because the city doesn’t have jobs to keep them here. As mayor, he will “put women first,” and focus on public safety and remedying gender inequality.