Last week’s Athens-Clarke County Commission meeting started with an unusual dispute over minutes and went downhill from there.
Commissioner Allison Wright objected to the lack of public comment on a Lexington Road apartment complex during a called meeting Feb. 8. Mayor Kelly Girtz explained that public comment had been taken on the development at two previous meetings and wasn’t required. He wound up having to break a 5–5 tie to approve the minutes, setting the tone for the nearly six-hour session.
Commissioners hotly debated the route for a section of the Firefly Trail near Winterville. Commissioner Patrick Davenport gave a detailed presentation on why the trail should be moved off an abandoned railbed to run alongside Moores Grove Road because some of his constituents don’t want it in their backyard.
“I can’t believe people who stood in those backyards think it’s OK to disrupt the environment and wildlife pond, take out all those trees,” Wright said. “You’re talking about disrupted, 24/7, 365 days a year, those residents.” She and commissioners Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby also supported that proposal, although Hamby later voted to keep the trail on the railbed.
Commissioner Carol Myers put forward a proposal that addressed some of residents’ concerns and kept the route as originally proposed, which won the support of seven commissioners. They expressed concerns about the legality of changing the route that voters had approved as part of SPLOST, and about people walking and biking along high-speed Moores Grove Road.
“At 50 miles an hour, you are extremely likely to die if you are struck by a vehicle,” Commissioner Jesse Houle said, adding that the trail would be a tourist attraction throughout the eventual 40-mile route to Union Point.
Girtz proposed to spend $969,480 in unspent federal CARES Act funds from last year to extend the Athens Eats Together program through the end of May. Run by the Athens Community Council on Aging, the program has provided more than 250,000 meals to 8,000 local residents.
Commissioner Tim Denson put together a proposal with Hamby to “fund this for a couple of months but… open this up to other organizations that are also doing fantastic work and also deserve to be funded.” Denson’s proposal provided $510,000 for Athens Eats Together and outlined a process for other organizations to apply for the rest, with a vote scheduled for Apr. 5.
Hamby, however, then put forward a list of specific organizations that he wanted to fund, which he acknowledged “would make people uncomfortable” but contended would help those mostly smaller groups build capacity.
Distributing the funds on the fly “could put us in legal jeopardy,” though, said Commissioner Russell Edwards, who is a lawyer. Houle agreed with Hamby that the funding could be distributed more equitably but said Hamby’s list “was written up on a napkin” and included a group that served dinner at one of his campaign events. Commissioner Mariah Parker called the list “slapdash.”
Commissioners spent the weekend trying to hash out an extension of the Athens Eats Together program, which was about to run out of money, and they apparently had some sharp disagreements about how to move forward.
“It’s been tense these last few days, and it’s been very stressful for some of the commissioners,” Thornton said. “There’s been some breach in relationships on this commission.”
Thornton initially backed Hamby, but both later voted in favor of Denson’s motion. It passed 8–2, with Davenport and Wright opposed. ACC has now opened up applications to groups that provide food assistance, housing assistance or homeless services for a share of the remaining $460,000.
The commission punted on another contentious issue, a student housing development on Mitchell Street, by voting to send it back to the planning commission for further review. It passed a master plan for the redevelopment of Bethel Midtown Village and public housing off College Avenue into a mixed-income neighborhood.
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