City DopeNews

Commissioners Plan Ahead While Conservatives Plan Takeover

A strategic plan the Athens-Clarke County Commission is set to approve next month lays out an ambitious agenda for Mayor Kelly Girtz’s second term, assuming he wins one. But a new political action committee run by a metro Atlanta Republican operative is hoping to foil those plans by spending $200,000 to overthrow the commission’s progressive majority and elect more conservative candidates in three open seats created by Athens’ four Republican legislators.

Broadly, the goals identified in ACC’s three-year strategic plan include: reducing crime and the number of incarcerated individuals through better community services; addressing systemic racism; recruiting and retaining top employees; improving engagement with the public; preventing homelessness; providing more home ownership opportunities and more affordable rental housing; improving walking, biking and transit infrastructure; preventing traffic deaths; aesthetic improvements on key corridors; and following through on ACC’s commitment to 100% clean and renewable energy. Almost 100 specific initiatives and strategies are included in the strategic plan.

“This is quite a monumental set of work,” Girtz said at a work session last week, but it will translate into “better circumstances for the people who we support.”

In a presentation to the mayor and commission on Feb. 8, Chief Data Officer Joseph D’Angelo called the three-year strategic plan “some happy and non-contentious news,” based on public feedback from more than 2,000 people through the ACC Planning Department’s comprehensive plan, Envision Athens, the Athens Well-Being Project, various user groups and other public input efforts. But organized opposition to the mayor and commission’s agenda is mounting.

In a memo circulating in private Facebook groups and obtained by Flagpole, a group called Athens Clean & Safe PAC laid out plans to elect three “common sense” commissioners in new districts created by ousting progressives Melissa Link in District 3, Tim Denson in District 5 and Russell Edwards in District 7, lending credence to rumors that certain conservative candidates had already been selected to run for those newly drawn seats. Perhaps not coincidentally, the “common sense” phrasing echoes former Mayor Nancy Denson’s campaign slogan.

If and when a new Republican-drawn commission district map is signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, Link, Denson and Edwards would not be able to run in 2022 because they’ve been drawn into even-numbered districts that are not on the ballot until 2024. That’s despite the fact that a majority of commissioners, as well as the ACC Board of Elections and the ACC Democratic Committee, support other maps that would allow those three commissioners the opportunity to run for re-election.

“We are actively engaging candidates, and have identified several outstanding and well-regarded individuals who will be making their plans known and announcing their candidacies,” according to the memo. “Each are moderate, sensible, centrist candidates who would give some of our commission a massive upgrade. And thankfully, each of these folks are very electable in their respective districts.” Athens Clean & Safe will also back “one and possibly two incumbents,” presumably referring to commissioners Ovita Thornton and/or Patrick Davenport. Thornton was one of three commissioners who voted against a locally drawn map that made minimal changes to districts, thus giving Republican legislators who had demanded a unanimous vote an opening to throw local elections into chaos. Davenport is the only other commissioner who would be able to run for re-election under the new map. 

The memo outlines lines of attack against progressives, pointing to a “$330,000” (actually $314,000) public toilet approved for College Square, a failed attempt by Denson and Commissioner Mariah Parker to “defund the police,” an upcoming vote on raising commissioners’ salaries, higher taxes and concerns about “failing” public schools. (Much of this is misleading—commissioners have no control over the Clarke County School District, have in fact raised police funding and salaries while adding mental health services, and cut the property tax rate, although some tax bills are higher because the property is worth more.)

The memo takes it as a given that Girtz will be re-elected, and since he won over 60% of the vote and every precinct in 2018, that’s a reasonable assumption. With three more moderate or conservative commissioners replacing three progressives, though, the memo points out that Girtz’s majority would be replaced by a new one serving as a check on his agenda, putting more power in the hands of the appointed manager, Blaine Williams.

The memo describes the group as a response to Athens for Everyone—which withered away as founders like Denson won elected office and newer leaders fell prey to infighting—the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement and “a handful of other uber-progressive organizations with a small handful of activists and loud voices.” It says Athens Clean & Safe has already raised $50,000, although no such PAC is registered with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

It is, however, registered as a nonprofit corporation with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office on Dec. 15. Interestingly, the registered agent is an Alpharetta resident—not Athens—named Jason D. Boles, a Republican operative with ties to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Donald Trump and an effort to infiltrate progressive groups in North Carolina.

The Republican map placing two-thirds of voters and three commissioners in new districts passed the state House in January and the state Senate on Feb. 7, sending it to Kemp. The Athens Republican had yet to sign the legislation, HB 890, as of Feb. 11, with local elections officials staring at a Feb. 18 deadline to input new data and alert over 40,000 voters.

Waiting as long as possible to finalize the map could prove to be a strategic advantage with a potential lawsuit looming. The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority recently ruled that it was too late to draw a new congressional map in Alabama even if the old one was illegal.