What is usually a noncontroversial vote on the mayor pro tem for 2022 exposed yet again the division between the more liberal and moderate wings of the Athens-Clarke County commission.
Commissioner Carol Myers, from the left faction, was elected 6-4 at a Jan. 4 meeting with the support of five other progressive commissioners who often vote together and without support from three other commissioners who often clash with those six. The two nominees, Commissioner Ovita Thornton and Myers, voted for themselves, while Myers was joined by commissioners Mariah Parker, Melissa Link, Jesse Houle, Russell Edwards and Tim Denson, and Thornton was joined by commissioners Mike Hamby, Allison Wright and Patrick Davenport, who is something of a wild card.
The mayor pro tem advises the mayor on the agenda, represents the mayor when the mayor is absent and has enormous influence over the budget as the person who chairs hearings on the mayor’s proposed budget.
Edwards, the previous mayor pro tem, said he nominated Myers because she isn’t up for re-election this year and has “displayed a willingness to make those phone calls throughout the organization, seize the work and recognize the personal aspect of this work, check in on people and try to cultivate those relationships.”
Link said she turned down requests to serve as mayor pro tem but turned it down because she is running—or was, until the new district map was introduced—and not just because of the time demands. “Election years can get testy, and someone in that deliberative position should have a clear head,” Link said. She praised Myer’s “deliberations and ability to do the research and ask the hard questions.”
Wright nominated Thornton. “We do have cliques in the group, but I’ve seen Ovita reach beyond that on many occasions,” Wright said. She and Hamby also cited Thornton’s 20 years on the commission and the school board. Myers has only served a year in elected office.
Hamby said, “I want someone who’s going to fight…” who will stand up to Mayor Kelly Girtz and Manager Blaine Williams when it comes to controversial agenda items. “I see Ovita doing that, and I think that’s an important part of the job.”
In contrast, Myers has the ability to “respectfully disagree” and is capable of representing the will of other commissioners, Parker said.
What Wright called Thornton’s “abrupt” personality rubs some of her colleagues the wrong way. “Commissioner Myers never uses ad hominem attacks,” Houle said, “and always makes points that are consistently on point and clearly worded and about the substance of the business we’re considering.” Thornton has also skipped a number of meetings and executive sessions, according to Houle. As for seniority, Parker, who won a special election and took office in June 2018, has served on the commission longer, Houle pointed out.
Thornton said she would refrain from personal attacks in the coming year but won’t stop forcefully advocating for what she believes in.
Not that there aren’t instances of cooperation: For example, Denson, Link and Thornton partnered on a compromise regarding rents charged to local nonprofits for the use of government facilities that passed unanimously.
For more than two years, commissioners have struggled to find an equitable formula for such leases. Some organizations, most notably the Town & Gown Players community theater group, objected to a proposed policy. Town & Gown’s rent for its donated Grady Avenue building would have risen from $1 to $5,000 a year.
Under the compromise, Town & Gown and four other groups that submitted proof that their services benefit the community—Athens Tutorial, the East Athens Development Corp., Hancock Avenue Development Corp. and Historic Athens—will pay $1 a year for fiscal 2023. Five other organizations that receive substantial ACC funding—the Athens Neighborhood Health Center, ACC Library, Athens Welcome Center, Clarke County Health Department and Advantage Behavioral Health—will also pay $1 a year.
Commissioners also unanimously approved a plan to expand the Athens Neighborhood Health Center’s McKinley Drive location. The $15,000 a year ANHC is saving thanks to its new $1 lease agreement will help pay for the expansion, along with a $574,000 federal grant. The project will double the size of the facility, including adding nine medical exam rooms and three dental exam rooms, and is expected to cost a total of $1.2 million.
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