Tiny courthouse, big living.
The Athens-Clarke County Commission voted 8–2 last week to put a $72 million judicial center back on the list of projects for an upcoming referendum on extending a 1 percent sales tax for capital projects. They also tacked a 10th year onto SPLOST 2020, bringing the total amount to $278 million.
The judicial center fell just short of winning enough support from a SPLOST citizens advisory committee to make it through the first cut. However, a majority of commissioners thought it was important enough to put it on the final list before the committee finishes its work of vetting potential projects.
The community has outgrown the courthouse, said Commissioner Russell Edwards, who noted that when it was built 100 years ago, Athens had one Superior Court judge, but now there are four, plus a variety of accountability counts that divert people with addiction and mental health problems out of prison and into treatment. Victims and defendants are forced to mingle in crowded hallways, offices are overcrowded, and there is nowhere for lawyers to meet privately with their clients.
“We need more room to create a place where the dignity of all humans, no matter the reason they’re in the courthouse, is respected,” Edwards said.
Commissioners—even those who voted against designating the judicial center—all agreed that the current courthouse is overcrowded. “The only problem I have [is] I cannot support it at this price,” Commissioner Patrick Davenport said. Other commissioners said they’re hopeful the cost will come down as staff refines the project.
Commissioner Ovita Thornton said she shared committee members’ concerns that a larger courthouse would expand a justice system that many believe is unfair to the poor and minorities. “I’m not trying to create nice places to do horrible things to people of color,” she said.
Commissioners Mariah Parker, Tim Denson and Melissa Link, who’ve been among the strongest voices on the commission for criminal justice reform, voted for the judicial center. “I’ll support this now, but if we don’t have a path toward meaningful criminal justice reform in this community by the time this comes to a vote to be put on the referendum in November, which means [July], I’m not going to vote for the SPLOST list,” Link said.
Commissioner Andy Herod said that he is committed to criminal justice reform, but it should be considered separately from space needs at the courthouse. “I think it’s important that these two issues are not conflated,” he said. “They are connected, but they are separate issues.”
Building the new judicial center would also allow ACC to move county government offices scattered around the county into the existing courthouse, then sell off those properties.
The previous commission had already voted to put the judicial center on the SPLOST list once, in December. But when four new commissioners took their seats in January, they reversed that decision. After learning more about the project, several of those commissioners changed their minds and backed it.
The vote came after more than a dozen people—some representing groups ranging from the local Libertarian Party to Athens for Everyone—joined the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement in asking commissioners to form a citizens (or community, or civilian) accountability (or advisory) board to oversee the police department and to end cash bail, at least for local ordinance violations. Mayor Kelly Girtz is working on a proposal for a police advisory committee, according to Parker.
In a much less contentious vote, which came after a series of confusing parliamentary maneuvers, the commission unanimously put $44 million for affordable housing on the SPLOST list, as well.