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December 12, 2018

Could the New Commission Change Course on SPLOST?

City Dope

As then-Sen. John Kerry once said of Iraq War funding, “I voted for it before I voted against it.” Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link voted to put a new courthouse on the next SPLOST list, just so she could vote against it in January.

A SPLOST 2020 citizen advisory committee had yet to start meeting on Dec. 4, but most commissioners think the $72 million judicial center is so important, they wanted to go ahead and put it on the list that will go before voters next fall anyway. The current courthouse is overcrowded and doesn’t meet modern security needs; building a new one would also allow ACC to consolidate far-flung departments in the current courthouse and sell those other properties. A $44 million affordable housing fund and some financing costs are also part of the “designated projects” package.

The argument for designating projects is that the citizen committee will know beforehand what commissioners, who make the final decision, consider essential. Others, though, think it deprives citizens—and incoming commissioners—of the opportunity to vet those projects.

“I feel it’s a vote of no confidence in my ability to join this body and be part of the team,” said Commissioner-elect Russell Edwards/ ““And it hurts a little bit.”

Link wanted to table a vote on the designated projects, but only Commissioner Mariah Parker would join her. So Link voted “yes” on a motion to pass the list. Being on the winning side will allow her to make a motion to reconsider at the next voting meeting—when Edwards and commissioners-elect Patrick Davenport, Tim Denson and Ovita Thornton will be behind the rail.

In other business:

• The proposed 12-month ban on electric scooters certainly got Bird’s attention. Company representative Cheyanne Woodyard showed up at the meeting to offer to work with ACC. Too little, too late—after unceremoniously dumping hundreds of scooters on Athens, leading to problems with people illegal riding without helmets and on sidewalks and leaving them everywhere, commissioners were in no mood to grant Bird’s request to table the moratorium.

“I’m a big fan of ‘em, but I agree there is a significant public safety issue,” Link said. “And I also have a problem with the way this company has done business, coming into this community and just dropping them on the public right-of-way.”

The ban passed unanimously. While it’s in place, county officials will craft regulations, then issue a request for proposals from e-scooter companies, so expect the scooters to return next year.

• The commission voted unanimously to accept the Gordy family’s donation of three houses on Reese Street and convey them to the Athens Land Trust. Those houses—which could have been demolished as part of redeveloping The Varsity and surrounding properties—include the Mack-Burney house, home of Athens’ second black dentist and a noted black educator. Commissioners cut a deal with the Gordys to save the houses and put some zoning restrictions in place to protect the surrounding neighborhood.

Writer and activist Kimberly Davis, local NAACP president Alvin Sheats and civil rights lawyer Ken Dious told commissioners that the Mack-Burney House should be turned into a museum of African-American history and culture, and the local black community should be involved. “Once again, rather than invite our community or representatives of our community to the table, our culture and history is on the menu,” Davis said.

“We were in real estate negotiations,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said. “That’s why it was kinda secret.” But now, commissioners said they welcome community involvement in discussing the future of the Mack-Burney House. And, they pointed out, the contract with the Gordys specifically lists a museum as a future use of the Mack-Burney House. (The other two will be renovated and sold or rented as affordable housing.)

• The commission backed away from a ban on booting cars in privately owned parking lots, but did set a cap of $50 to remove boots and will require booting companies to be licensed and employees to wear uniforms.

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