City DopeNews

Crime Dominates Discussion at Athens Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum

Mayor Kelly Girtz defended his record on crime at a recent Athens Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum, pointing to increased salaries for police officers, while challengers said morale and staffing remain problems within the police department.

“What we have done is seek to fill every public safety position,” Girtz told moderator Tim Bryant of WGAU at the Apr. 18 forum, held in the Piedmont Athens Regional auditorium. Under Girtz, the Athens-Clarke County government has raised the starting salary for police officers to $47,000, and the mayor said he will propose another 6% raise in the upcoming fiscal 2023 budget.

Pearl Hall, one of five challengers for the mayor’s office, said that officers should spend more time patrolling the outskirts of the community, rather than just the inner city, and that ACCPD should hire more Athens natives. “How many officers are born and raised in Athens and know the community?” she said.

Girtz proposed a cadet program in 2021 that would have trained high-school students to become police officers, but the commission removed it from the budget.

Bennie Coleman III cautioned against “backlash” against police, and said that parents should be raising their children to respect others. When Bryant pressed him for government solutions, he called for more housing, more employment opportunities, help for the homeless and help for students to go to private schools.

Mara Zúñiga—making her first appearance after skipping two previous forums—reiterated her opposition to the recently created Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board, which will investigate charges of police misconduct and recommend policy changes to law enforcement. “It seemed more like optics to me than any results coming out of that,” she said.

Zúñiga said that some commissioners don’t want to go after grants or supply equipment, presumably referring to commissioners like Mariah Parker and Jesse Houle questioning the need for equipment like assault rifles or expressing skepticism about grants to pursue drug enforcement. “By the fact that we don’t have any people coming into those jobs, it tells you morale is a big issue, not just money,” Zúñiga said.

Fred Moorman contended that Atlanta residents are coming to Athens to commit crimes, and said that a bus connection to MARTA that Girtz has proposed would exacerbate the problem. “Do you want people who shouldn’t be here taking a fast train to get here, commit a crime and take a fast train back?” Moorman said.

Mykeisha Ross said youth development is the key to preventing crime, and criticized the commission for subtracting $1 million from a plan to spend $7 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds on youth programs. “We address crime by helping youth build their brand,” Ross said of the nonprofit she started, Youth Is Life.

The format for the chamber forum was unusual, with Bryant questioning each of 16 candidates for mayor and commission individually for about seven minutes. The candidates didn’t all field the same questions, but they all received some version of a question on crime.

Some other highlights of the forum, which can be viewed in full at Athens Politics Nerd’s YouTube page, include:

Affordable Housing: Zúñiga said Hall “got a bad rap” for asking at another forum what affordable housing is—a question Hall repeated Apr. 18. “When we talk about the millions of dollars being put into affordable housing, who gets priority for that?” Zúñiga said. “It’s not clear.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable as a person paying less than 30% of their income for housing. In 2018, affordable rent for the median Athens family making $32,162 a year was $804 a month, which would cover the mortgage payments on a $130,000–$150,000 house, but the average home sold for $200,400, according to a 2019 ACC workforce housing study. Housing costs have gone up substantially since then.

Girtz said the county is increasing the housing supply through measures encouraging redevelopment of parking lots and distressed shopping centers. But the problem is partially one of wages, he said, touting his economic development record of drawing animal vaccine manufacturer Boehringer Ingleheim and RWDC, which makes petroleum-free alternatives to plastic.

“Why don’t they move in with their wife and take care of the kids they produced?” Moorman said when asked about affordable housing, suggesting the children get jobs delivering newspapers.

Moorman, who owns multiple rental properties, also addressed his reputation as a “slumlord,” as Bryant put it. “That’s absolutely not true,” Moorman said. “You might be talking about the one in 1,000 people who had to be evicted because they didn’t pay their rent, and they get on the internet and say bad things about anybody.”

Meanwhile, in the Commission District 5 race, former commissioner Jared Bailey sought to clear up a comment he had made in a WUGA interview when he said the local government shouldn’t be in the business of building affordable housing. What he meant, he said, was the actual construction. “Our role is to work with the organizations that provide affordable housing,” like the Athens Housing Authority and Athens Land Trust, he said.

Bailey also referenced his past experience in the economic development field. “What we need, of course, are people who make a living wage to afford the housing that’s out there,” he said.

SPLOST Is Here to Stay: “I’m a green person in this campaign,” Coleman acknowledged. “I don’t know much about the government yet.”

It showed when Coleman said he would “freeze” SPLOST and put in a better plan. That’s impossible, because once voters approved the 1% sales tax and slate of projects in 2020—by a three-to-one margin—ACC became bound by state law to implement them unless a project becomes infeasible for some reason.

First District Fireworks: Commission District 1 challenger Audrey Hughes came out swinging against incumbent Patrick Davenport, accusing him of not being responsive to constituents. “My commissioner didn’t listen to me, didn’t address my needs, so I’m here to make a change,” she said.

According to Hughes, she lost her job as a teacher while two of her children were in college, one of whom had a medical issue, and sought help when her property tax bill arrived, but Davenport didn’t respond. And she was unsatisfied with his response when she inquired about getting a sewer line in her neighborhood of Falling Shoals.

Given an opportunity for a rebuttal, Davenport said that Hughes emailed all the commissioners while he was at his day job, and another commissioner responded before he got the chance. As for sewer, he said the topography of Falling Shoals would require pump stations to install a sewer line, making it prohibitively expensive.

District 3 Differences: Tiffany Taylor had one of the best lines of the night when, during a discussion on gang violence, she referenced all the liquor stores in her East Athens neighborhood. Bryant asked if that was a police issue. “Police don’t build buildings, Tim,” Taylor replied. 

She went on to say that police are too aggressive when they patrol Black neighborhoods, and that entitled UGA students to “just let it [racism] fly.”

“There’s really nothing the commission can do about racism, because Athens was built on it,” Taylor concluded. She, like opponent Asia Thomas, is Black.

Thomas agreed that East Athens is often neglected, but called for unity and said she would “build bridges instead of building walls.”

Two Minutes’ Hate: Boos from the primarily Republican crowd of about 100 rained down on Matt Pulver, another District 5 candidate, when he defended his progressive philosophy. Pulver said he would keep Athens on its current path of addressing a “staggering disparity in wealth and power” that he blamed on past conservative governments.

Asked if more progressivism is the answer, Pulver said that since voters elected a progressive government in 2018, it has cut the poverty rate from 38% to 25%. “We don’t fix the errors of conservatism with more conservatism,” he said, at which point the jeers started, with one audience member shouting, “Communism!” The chamber’s executive director, David Bradley, had to tell the boo-birds to settle down.

“I welcome your hatred,” Pulver said, quoting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous comment about bankers in a 1936 speech.