It seems like forever since a progressive wave swept into office a new mayor and five new commissioners who pledged to take bold action on issues, like poverty, that have plagued Athens for generations.
But it was only May, and last week, Mayor Kelly Girtz was finally sworn in, and newly elected commissioners Patrick Davenport, Tim Denson, Russell Edwards and Ovita Thornton joined Commissioner Mariah Parker—who took office in June after a May special election—and re-elected incumbent Melissa Link behind the rail, taking their seats alongside holdovers Allison Wright, Jerry NeSmith, Andy Herod and Mike Hamby.
“This is a time of great promise,” Girtz said. “I think it’s a time when we’re going to see increased opportunity for every sector of Athens. A great era of equity approaches. I thank everybody in this room and everybody beyond for being part of that.”
Taking their cues from Parker, who was sworn in on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Denson used Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail to take the oath of office, while Link chose Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and her grandmother’s copy of Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmental exposé Silent Spring.
In a speech from behind the rail, Denson noted that Athens is a city that’s growing and changing. Doing things the way they’ve always been done will no longer cut it, he said.
“I look forward to challenging us to reimagine what our local government can be,” Denson said. “I challenge us to be better. I challenge us to be a local government and a community that no longer accepts the existence of wealth inequality and challenge us to eradicate it; one that is willing to acknowledge the sins of our past and present, sins such as white supremacy, and chooses to confront those sins by creating equitable policies that create an equal platform for black Athenians; one that not only stands up against discrimination when it happens, but that stands in solidarity with the undocumented community, the LGBT community, black Athenians, Latinx Athenians and all historically oppressed communities, and works with them to make this city welcoming to all.”
The newbies all come from activist backgrounds. Davenport has been involved with the Athens Economic Justice Coalition and co-founded a worker-owned cleaning business. The progressive group Athens for Everyone—which supported all of May’s winners—grew out of Denson’s 2014 mayoral campaign, and he’s now an organizer for UGA’s chapter of the United Campus Workers union. Edwards fought alongside Link against a downtown Walmart, and both were regulars behind the podium before running for office. Thornton, too, is a veteran community organizer who works for a the Georgia Clients Council, a nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income people.
The new commission’s first action was to reconsider a December vote to place a $72 million judicial center, $9 million to renovate the courthouse into city government offices and $44 million for affordable housing on the $278 million project list for an upcoming SPLOST referendum. Commissioners have discussed the judicial center several times, but “folks coming on tonight have not had the benefit of that, and they deserve that benefit,” Girtz said, so another discussion will take place at a January or February work session.
The affordable housing funding is a bit more mysterious—it involves a real estate transaction, so officials said there’s little they can say publicly about it. Commissioners will be briefed on it during a future closed session, said Manager Blaine Williams. This is speculation, but Girtz has talked for years about redeveloping Bethel Midtown Village and providing incentives to improve other privately owned Section 8 rental housing, especially on the Eastside.
The commission voted 8-2, with Wright and Davenport opposed, to put off a decision on designating those projects until February or March. Meanwhile, a citizens advisory committee is meeting twice weekly to vet 88 proposed projects and recommend which ones to fund to the mayor and commission.
In another sign of the times, Parker asked Girtz to put marijuana decriminalization on the agenda, with Wright volunteering the services of the Legislative Review Committee she chairs. Edwards, a lawyer, said he recently attended a meeting where state Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs outlined former Gov. Nathan Deal’s most recent criminal justice reform legislation. According to Edwards, Boggs said the law allows police to ticket people for possession of small amounts of marijuana rather than arrest them. Girtz did not act on the request.
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