City DopeNews

Commissioners Won’t Pour Water on Fuming Firefighters

Firefighter Jeremy Williams speaks at the Dec. 6, 2022 mayor and commission meeting. Screencap via YouTube

The Athens-Clarke County Commission again pushed back a vote to recognize a firefighters’ union, rescheduling it from last week to June in order to have a work session on the issue next month.

The firefighters’ union would seem to be an issue that could unite the right and the left, with Athens GOP Chairman Gordon Rhoden and other Republicans in support of firefighters, and the commission’s progressive wing in support of unions, as well. However, the commission voted unanimously at its Apr. 4 meeting to hold the ordinance recognizing the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County Local 2795, after already punting on the ordinance in December.

“I need more information,” Commissioner Dexter Fisher said. “If our equipment is that bad, I need to know that, and I need to know why. If we’re not recruiting or retaining firefighters, I need to know why.”

Fisher is one of three new commissioners who’ve joined the board since December. Another, John Culpepper, seconded Fisher’s motion. Culpepper said he supports firefighters “100%” and called for more open lines of communication between county staff and commissioners. However, ACC’s charter sets up a style of government where the commission directs the manager and is not supposed to be involved in day-to-day government operations. Commissioners are supposed to go through the manager rather than speak directly to rank-and-file employees, and employees are also discouraged from going outside the chain of command. Nevertheless, some commissioners have invited firefighters and other county employees to come to them with their concerns. 

Lt. Jeremy Wiliams—one of about 20 speakers in favor of the union—told commissioners that, after firefighters lobbied to save a ladder company on the Eastside from budget cuts in 2012, the manager’s office silenced them. Since then, Lt. Williams said, the fire department has been shedding employees. County Attorney Judd Drake even pushed back against Commissioner Mike Hamby when Hamby strongly suggested ordering Manager Blaine Williams to have a union representative participate in the May 9 work session.

Among the concerns cited by Blaine Williams, Girtz and some commissioners: Under a Gov. Jimmy Carter-era state law, firefighters are the only government employees in Georgia who are allowed to collectively bargain (although they cannot legally go on strike). Some worry that recognizing the firefighters’ union will create a special class of ACC employees with more power than those in other departments.

“I wish we could extend this under state law to other departments, but like any good cause, you have to start somewhere,” Commissioner Jesse Houle said.

Houle moved to recognize the union, but seemed to know that they lacked the votes. “Whatever we do tonight, I hope we find a way to move forward and keep this issue alive,” they said. Fisher then made his substitute motion.

The most recent vote came four months after Mayor Kelly Girtz vetoed a resolution recognizing public sector unions that the commission had passed by a 5–4 vote. At that December meeting, union supporters then pulled off the agenda an associated ordinance specifically recognizing the firefighters; union, which would have required six votes to pass and also faced the threat of a veto.

Girtz was vacationing in London with his family during spring break last week, and Mayor Pro Tem Ovita Thornton presided over the Apr. 4 meeting.

The commission also voted unanimously to table a proposed subdivision off Newton Bridge Road until May to give Texas-based megadeveloper D.R. Horton another chance to address concerns. “This is the kind of low-density sprawling development that got us into the [housing crisis] we’re in,” said Commissioner Melissa Link, who was sworn in for a third term after winning a Mar. 21 special election.

A rezoning for an Athens Land Trust low-income apartment complex off Bray Street in East Athens won unanimous approval. The 46 units would be reserved for tenants earning 50%–70% of the area median income as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or about $40,000–$55,000 for a family of four. The land trust is seeking tax credits for low-income housing from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to subsidize the project. It would be similar to the land trust’s Fourth Street Village nearby.

“This will be an ideal place for affordable housing, for low-income people” because it’s close to a  bus line, the Division of Family and Children Services, a daycare and a shopping center, said property owner Lacey Johnson.