Three of Athens-Clarke County’s five mayoral candidates gathered on May 2 for the final forum of their candidacy, hosted by The Red & Black. The trio discussed the ACC government’s relationship with the University of Georgia, crime, homelessness, transportation, road safety and affordable housing.
Incumbent Kelly Girtz and challengers Mara Zúñiga and Fred Moorman were present. Candidates Pearl Hall and Mykeisha Ross did not make an appearance, though Ross left a message that included a note of appreciation for her supporters and a call to action to “start holding government accountable for the things they say/promise.” Bennie Coleman III dropped out of the race earlier in the day.
Journalists Dania Kalaji from The Red & Black, Blake Aued from Flagpole and D.J. Simmons from the Athens Banner-Herald moderated.
UGA: Girtz said he seeks to hone in on areas where the city and UGA can enjoy mutual benefits and would continue to provide volunteer opportunities to students. While he acknowledged political friction between the governor-appointed Board of Regents and the ACC government, he said he has an “ongoing, strong relationship” with UGA administration that he would continue to foster.
Moorman acknowledged the reach of UGA and its positive impact on Athens but did not elaborate. Zúñiga said she has observed hostility between UGA administration and county commissioners, and noted her opinion that local government has not adequately responded to UGA’s concerns about student crime.
“That relationship is somewhat broken. I would try to meet with the UGA administrators frequently,” Zúñiga said.
In response to a question about mental health resources, Moorman equated the mental health crisis with the smallpox and tetanus epidemics that past generations faced, concluding “we all must support each other and establish procedures.”
Zúñiga expressed her desire to create a program in which local government and youth can discuss drugs and gangs, as well as a group for the community, UGA students and administration to investigate mental health resources. The goal, she said, would be to identify resources that weren’t being utilized to decide whether to eliminate or draw more attention to them.
Girtz pointed to the steps he and the commission have taken to facilitate accessible mental health services. Such actions include adding multi-million dollars worth of inpatient beds for Advantage Behavioral Health Services in the last referendum and recently funding the expansion of Athens Neighborhood Health Center’s McKinley Drive location, which will offer such services. Another addition of ANHC is upcoming and will be downtown, ideally located for UGA students.
Homelessness: Zúñiga and Moorman both expressed concern that unhoused individuals are flocking to Athens. Moorman worried about “some counties around here who give their homeless people a free one way bus ticket to Athens,” and warned that “a lot of people who pawn for money are not homeless, that’s their second job,” thus scaring the older population away from downtown.
Girtz—after pointedly remarking on downtown’s vibrancy and success throughout his administration—affirmed that his agenda in response to homelessness includes addressing lack of affordable housing, ensuring strong case management and working with other counties to ensure they are also offering assistance.
Zúñiga said she would communicate with the state to decentralize services in an attempt to mitigate the entrance of homeless people from other areas. Her goal, she said, would be to focus on resources for Athenians who need them.
As for First Step, the new government-sanctioned homeless encampment, she re-emphasized her disapproval of the project because of its low capacity and $2.5 million dollar price tag. Of her visit to the encampment, she reported: “I really didn’t see that many people there. I know that there are no services provided there, no clear pathway to recovery or readmission to society.”
Girtz corrected Zúñiga and pointed to the presence of Advantage Behavioral Health Services readily accessible at First Step. Zúñiga defended her position, and said that Advantage “may or may not help them and then they will get returned back to the homeless encampment and back to square one, so there’s no clear pathway,” which she gathered from her conversation with a representative of First Step.
Transportation: Moorman said he seeks to better enforce “basic laws and rules” regarding road safety. His plan includes policing “earpods”—perhaps meaning Airpods—to protect pedestrians from harm.
Girtz said his goal is to build streets to be safe. He pointed to the Vision Zero coordinator in his recently proposed budget, who would engineer roads so “we get safer streets for all users, for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians.”
Maintaining signage is a concern of Zúñiga’s, a task she said the ACC government slacks on. She is skeptical of TSPLOST, the 1% sales tax for transportation appearing on the ballot May 24.
“I don’t think it’s being applied to things that people need,” she said. “A lot of people would like the concept of a TSPLOST if they were to see it applied to their neighborhoods, and there has been a lack of that.”
Moorman concluded “free buses don’t make sense to me,” and complained that tinted windows on buses obscure how few citizens use them.
Conversely, Girtz heartily encouraged voters to support TSPLOST. “There are neighborhoods that are going to be supported by this TSPLOST in East and North Athens that have never gotten their due that are finally going to see some new benefits,” Girtz said. He also backed fare-free transit. “We should think of transit like we think of access to a sidewalk,” Girtz said. “It’s something for the public to use that enhances safety and the economic vitality of the community.”
Rather than giving her explicit opinion on fare-free transit, Zúñiga mentioned ridership numbers from the most recent city manager’s report. The transit department provided 1,000 less passenger trips in March 2022 than it did in February, she said, and encouraged Athenians to make their own conclusion using this data. Athens Transit did provide 1,083 less trips between those two months, a 1.15% decrease. Ridership in March 2022 was actually slightly better than the historic average for the month, though.
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