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ACC Commission Rejects Firefighters’ Union, Accessory Dwellings

Firefighter Jeremy Williams speaks at the Dec. 6 mayor and commission meeting. Screencap via YouTube

The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission narrowly rejected two proposals relevant to the future of workers’ rights and affordable housing in Athens at their meeting last week. 

Firefighter’s Union: First, Mayor Kelly Girtz announced his intention to veto a request from ACC firefighters for collective bargaining and for official recognition of their union. Second, the commission failed to pass an ordinance that would have allowed small cottages, garage apartments and similar accessory structures to serve as residences and expand Athens’ housing stock.

In recent months, the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County (Local 2795) have been attending commission meetings to request that the local government officially recognize their union, which started 15 years ago. While public sector unions are generally prohibited in Georgia, firefighters are an exception to this rule. Even so, most Georgia cities do not take advantage of this loophole. Only Atlanta and the city of South Fulton officially recognize their firefighters’ unions.

Athens briefly threatened to become the third pro-union city when commissioners Jesse Houle, Tim Denson and Melissa Link responded to the advocacy of Athens firefighters by asking the mayor to put this item on their agenda for discussion. Girtz refused, but in a rare maneuver, Houle, Denson and Link worked with commissioners Mike Hamby, Carol Myers and Ovita Thornton to call a special session over Girtz’s objections.

Before the special meeting, ACC Manager Blaine Williams sent a memo to commissioners opposing their decision. In the memo, Williams argued that it would be unfair for some ACC employees to gain the advantage of a union while others are denied that right by state law. He worried that union influence may lead the local government’s wage structure and other benefits to be defined more by political influence than by market conditions. He argued that unions often express political opinions, something which employees are discouraged from doing by ACC government policy. Finally, he stressed that the process of collective bargaining is time consuming, inefficient and would cost taxpayers if union contract negotiations ever needed external mediation.

In a 5-4 vote, most commissioners disagreed with Williams and sided with the firefighters’ union, passing a resolution in support of ACC government employees joining labor unions. “To me, this is quite simple,” said Houle. “Do we believe in worker empowerment? Do we believe in the principles of democracy enough to apply them to our workplace?” 

While admitting that the process of collective bargaining would be complicated, Houle said it would ultimately strengthen the ACC Fire Department by improving morale and reducing issues of employee recruitment and retention.

Denson, Link, Houle and Hamby were joined by Commissioner Russell Edwards, who also voted in support of the resolution. Despite being among the six who called for the special meeting, Thornton and Myers voted against the resolution, as did commissioners Allison Wright and Patrick Davenport.

“I have too many concerns to proceed tonight,” said Myers. “Added work to overworked staff without added resources, people and budgeted dollars; the creation of unbalanced power and representation for one group of ACC employees over the rest; lack of clarity about future commission support of these items; the need for the local union to build its credibility and the need for more carefully defined wording in the resolution.

“These are concerns that might eventually be addressed in a satisfactory way,” she added.

Wright voted no on the resolution, but encouraged firefighters to reach out to her privately if they had any concerns with their pay or benefits. “If the chain of command is not working for you, for your personnel issues, for your budget issues, you need to let us know,” she said.

After passing the resolution, union supporters on the commission hesitated and did not vote on the ordinance that would actually begin the resolution’s implementation. Unlike resolutions, ordinances require six votes for passage, meaning union supporters would have needed an additional vote that would have been hard to come by. At Hamby’s suggestion, the ordinance was tabled until April in something of a Hail Mary pass to a future commission that would hopefully be more supportive of unions.

This last-ditch effort to recognize the firefighters’ union in April will almost certainly end up failing, however. That’s because Girtz announced that he would be vetoing both the resolution and the ordinance, should it ever pass.

“One of the phenomena in large organizations is that everybody is looking around at everybody else’s experience,” Girtz said. “A healthy organization is doing everything it can to create a strong platform for everyone. In the new year, I am very glad to assign to committee the question of employee engagement and benefits, broadly. I have experienced the fracturing and atomization that can happen when you don’t have the broad conversations but you have narrow conversations. So, I am going to veto the resolution, and I would in fact veto the ordinance had it passed.”

The commission can override a mayor’s veto with seven votes, but that seems nearly impossible considering that three union supporters—Link, Denson and Edwards—are rolling off the commission next month.

Accessory Dwellings: Despite a recommendation from Girtz’s Inclusionary Housing Working Group and unanimous approval from the ACC Planning Commission, a proposal to allow accessory structures like garage apartments, small cottages or “in-law suites” to be used as long-term housing, even in single-family zones, was rejected by the commission in a series of 5-4 votes. As mentioned above, ordinances require the affirmative votes of six commissioners, regardless of how many commissioners are currently serving on the body.

Knowing the accessory dwelling unit proposal was controversial, Houle suggested a compromise that would have allowed accessory dwellings but limited the number of bedrooms in them to a maximum of two. This proposal failed despite winning a 5-4 majority, with Link, Wright, Thornton and Hamby voting no.

Link said she supported the right of property owners “to build a small unit in the backyard,” but worried that allowing two bedrooms in an accessory unit would make them too attractive to student housing developers. She did not want to increase the pressure on some neighborhoods in her district, which she says have been “overrun with student housing.”

Link then made her own proposal to allow accessory units, this time with a cap of one bedroom. This proposal also failed 5-4 despite gaining a vote from Link, because Davenport switched his vote to no. He did so because he worried that accessory units with only one bedroom would be used primarily as short-term rentals like AirBnBs instead of long-term rentals.

“From listening to my constituents, they have concerns that we already have an issue in East Athens with short-term rentals. Just having that one bedroom will incentivize it,” Davenport said.

Edwards and Girtz tried to squeeze in a (possibly rule-breaking) third vote on this issue, but neither Link nor Davenport budged. “It would be a betrayal of my constituents,” Link said.

Edwards’ suggestion to table the ordinance was ruled out of order by Girtz. As the meeting entered its sixth hour, Thornton had already left by the time the third vote was called. Both Link and Davenport voted no this time, resulting in a 4-4 vote that was broken by Girtz, leading to a third, failed 5-4 vote. Due to Girtz’s strong support for the idea, though, it’s possible we might see this idea again in some form in the future.

Audit Committee: The commission voted unanimously to restructure the Audit Committee and relaunch the ACC Office of Operational Analysis. The new Audit Committee will include only two commissioners out of a total of five members. The remaining three members will have “significant public or private sector management or systems analysis experience” and will be recruited from the community at large.

The new Audit Committee will launch early next year, according to Girtz. At that point, the search for a new internal auditor will begin, and the committee will be involved in the interview and hiring process for this position. The internal auditor position has been vacant since Stephanie Maddox was fired in September 2021.

Linnentown Reparations: The Athens Justice and Memory Project is a committee created by Girtz in an attempt to make amends for the role the city of Athens played in the destruction of the Linnentown neighborhood during urban renewal in the 1960s. Led by Hattie Whitehead, a former resident of Linnentown, the Athens Justice and Memory Project has been studying the best way to provide reparations to those affected by urban renewal.

Recently, it made a recommendation that the commission provide $1.25 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for the preservation of affordable housing in Athens, and put another $1.25 million towards the creation of an ACC Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures. Those recommendations were unanimously approved by the commission.

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