It may seem odd in a city that’s two-thirds Democratic, but with Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Kelly Girtz looking like he’s got the progressive vote all but wrapped up, fellow mayoral candidates Harry Sims and Richie Knight appear to be doubling down on conservatives—Sims by denigrating cyclists and Knight by emphasizing law enforcement.
Sims, who spent 25 years on the commission before resigning in March, spent much of his opening statement at a WUGA forum at the library last week talking about the budget. “My first thing is, how do we save money?” Sims said. “I’ve already proved that to you” by resigning to set up a May 22 special election for his seat, saving taxpayers about $50,000.
But when asked what he would do as mayor to save money, Sims couldn’t come up with anything. “People think we’re [ACC] wasting money,” he said. “We’re very frugal in what we do, and I’m very stingy.”
There must be “pockets” of wasteful spending, Knight said, and he would appoint a citizen committee to find them, but he would also focus more on the revenue side. Police and firefighters are underfunded, he said. “As population grows, so should our public safety departments,” he said. One of his ideas is to sell off county-owned property downtown, like the planning department building, and move government offices into empty retail space.
Rather than spend more on public safety, Girtz said he would look to the criminal justice system for cost savings. It makes up more than half of ACC’s $100-million-plus operating budget. “There are always inefficiencies in big systems like that, where you have a lot of independent players,” he said. A criminal justice coordinating council could make sure police, prosecutors, jailers and judges are all communicating and working together. ACC could also save money through energy initiatives like the hybrid buses the county recently bought and a solar array at the Cedar Creek wastewater treatment plant, he said.
On transportation, Knight said he is concerned about “sidewalks to nowhere” and doesn’t think industries should be required to build sidewalks. But “I fully support Complete Streets wherever feasible,” he said.
The ability to walk places is “essential to quality of life,” Girtz said. He pointed to ACC’s soon-to-be-updated bike and pedestrian master plan, as well as T-SPOST, the sales tax for transportation voters approved last year, which will “greatly enhance mobility,” he said. The tax will pay for car-free paths like Firefly Trail and the North Oconee River Greenway, where riders of all abilities feel safe, he said.
Sims, however, did not seem to understand what Complete Streets is about. The policy involves taking away a car lane or two on wide, fast roads (like Prince Avenue) and using the space for other modes of transportation, like bike lanes, sidewalks or a separated path. But Sims mainly talked about how residential side streets are too narrow.
As for Prince, Sims said it’s already a complete street (narrator voice: It’s not). The right-hand car lane “is a better path for a bicycle because it’s a whole lot wider than a bike lane,” which I’m sure will come as shock to anyone who’s actually ridden a bike down Prince. He went on to blame cyclists for causing most wrecks with cars. “The bicyclist has to understand that they need to follow the rules of the road,” he said. True, but left unmentioned was that so do drivers, like the one who killed Karen Tinsley by following too closely, or the distracted, swerving driver on pills who killed Ashley Block in 2016.
On housing, Sims said he’s skeptical of Girtz’s plan to use SPLOST funding and economic development tools like tax allocation districts to reduce developers’ costs and bring down housing prices. “Gee, that sounds good,” he said. “I wish it could really happen.”
Sims did come across as progressive on one issue: He endorsed the green building code that former mayor Heidi Davison tried to pass in her last months in office and Mayor Nancy Denson shelved. And he said that all buildings over 5,000 square feet should be LEED certified. Knight said he would look to other cities for inspiration on environmental sustainability. Girtz said he’d commit ACC to 100 percent renewable energy, first for the government and then for citizens. He’d also hire teenagers to plant trees. “We can make this a more beautiful town and a cleaner town, and help youth develop some skills at the same time,” Girtz said.
One thing Sims and Knight have in common is contempt for activists on the left who they believe dominate political discussion. It’s a theme Sims returns to often, and one Knight embraced last Tuesday. “For far too long, we’ve let groups have the microphone who have one particular voice and are hostile to those who have another voice,” Knight said. )Gee, whom could he be talking about?)
But at least the candidates are civil toward each other. “We all live here in Athens, and we have to see you every day,” Sims said. “That’s why we’re not pulling each other’s hair out, or whatever.”
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