City DopeNews

Mayoral Candidates Talk Gentrification, Innovation

From left, mayoral candidates Mara Zúñiga, Mykeisha Ross, incumbent Kelly Girtz, Bennie Coleman III and Pearl Hall at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. Fred Moorman did not attend. Credit: Blake Aued

Girtz announced a couple of new initiatives at a Mount Pleasant Baptist Church candidate forum Apr. 26. In response to a question about innovation, the mayor mentioned RWDC, a company that manufactures a sustainable plastic alternative invented at UGA and now employs 200 people in Athens. “We want to extend that to anyone who’s launched a small business at a dining room table,” Girtz said, announcing a new position in the Economic Development Department “to focus on new entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs of color and women entrepreneurs.” In addition, he said Athens-Clarke County would be creating a “public access portal” where residents could easily register complaints.

In response to the same question about innovation, Mara Zúñiga bemoaned the lack of trust in local government and said it’s not transparent financially. “Where is the money going?” she asked. “How is it being spent? To whom is it going?”

Mykeisha Ross also said more information should be provided to the public, either by mail or through social media. She proposed the formation of a community outreach committee.

On innovation, Bennie Coleman III said he would build relationships, while Pearl Hall said she would focus on family and community and try to catch up with the younger generation.

On gentrification, Zúñiga said she sees the problem on the Eastside but doesn’t know how to address it. “We’re fighting a situation where we don’t know how to approach it,” she said. “We sit down and throw ideas around. I wish I could tell you I know the answer.”

Later, Zúñiga pounced on Girtz when he touted a referendum on a property tax freeze for low-income homeowners in November. She pointed out that Girtz actually wound up opposing that bill because state Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) added a higher homestead exemption that would apply to rich and poor alike, costing ACC $3.2 million in revenue. Girtz also said he would revive a land bank authority that could clear titles for property that sits vacant because it was inherited by multiple heirs.

Ross claimed that 20% of the local poverty rate comes from students, and said zoning needs to be addressed. She said she would look at models from other cities.

Coleman blamed developer greed. ”They can build affordable homes. Materials aren’t that expensive,” he said, though statistics say otherwise. He said he would hire public contractors to build houses for the city.

“As mayor, I will ensure parents and children live in a stable environment,” and they will have playgrounds and basketball courts, Hall said.

Inexplicably, these forums continue to include discussions on education that don’t fall under the purview of the mayor and commission. Asked about preserving the segregation-era West Broad School, only Girtz and Ross correctly identified it as Clarke County School District property and a decision that can only be made by the school board. However, Ross continued to insist that the mayor can appoint the school superintendent, even though state law specifies that it’s the local school board’s responsibility.

“Ultimately, the West Broad School has to be the decision of the school board,” Girtz said, noting that ACC has put forth a standing offer to contribute $3 million to turn the property into a youth development center. Current plans call for pre-K and Head Start classrooms, although the board rejected soon-to-retire Superintendent Xernona Thomas’ proposal to demolish two of three buildings on the site.

“I love the West Broad School,” Hall said. “That, as mayor, would be one of my top priorities.”

Coleman also pledged to “get the funds together… whatever it takes.”

Zúñiga seemed confused by the question, specifically an insinuation that some shadowy organization is after the property. “I don’t think anybody really addressed that innuendo,” she said.