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Is Athens-Clarke County Still Progressive?


I enjoyed and appreciated Blake Aued’s City Dope column in the June 1 Flagpole. He’s convinced me that I should pay more attention to local politics. More to the point, I should pay more attention to just who are our local politicians and what are their motivations and visions for Athens-Clarke County?

It seems like only yesterday that I was among the people of Athens-Clarke County feeling smug in having elected a “progressive” Mayor and Commission, leaders who understood that Athens was a unique “blue dot in a red sea” that marched to a liberal drumbeat compared to the regressive right wing conservatives that had taken over Georgia’s state and local governments. It was not that easy. The idea of “nonpartisan” elections had taken hold in Athens-Clarke County. The liberals went along, thinking they were being idealistic. The conservatives knew nonpartisan was the easiest way to get Republicans elected in Athens. This was more than a decade ago.  

Has Athens’ government become more conservative? Perhaps half of the current Athens-Clarke County Commissioners took office less than four years ago. Most of the new ones I’ve never met. What are their respective visions of Athens’ future? What are their ideas for reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for the underserved? Do the commissioners who’ve been around for a decade or more still have liberal leanings?  As I said, I should’ve paid attention, but it sure seems quiet these days on the liberal/progressive front.

At least one of the newer commissioners doesn’t equivocate about where she stands on the political spectrum. Melissa Link proclaims on her website: “My first duty as an elected official will be to ensure a better life for the too many among us who have less than enough. I truly believe that when those at the bottom are able to get ahead, we are all lifted a little higher.”  

Who could ask for a more genuinely progressive aspiration from a local elected office holder? Yet, I’ve heard complaints from some that at ACC Commission meetings she is sometimes a disruptive influence. If that is true, I say, “Thank you, Melissa Link!”

I recently met Commissioner Link for the first time. A sincerely dynamic personality, she was greeting constituents while she shopped at the West Broad Street Market and Garden. West Broad is the inspirational grass roots community undertaking that is now threatened with literally being paved over and used as a parking lot by its former benefactor, the Clarke County School District. The CCSD has already dropped the associated Young Urban Farmers program from its budget.  Athens Land Trust, the non-profit that administers West Broad Garden and Market, is seeking through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to raise the $40,000 now needed to sustain the Young Urban Farmers for another year. (A link to the site is in the online version of this letter.)

Link and the West Broad Market and Garden are both the real deal. Each represent hope for a future that includes uplift for Athenians other than affluent UGA students passing through. Yet both Melissa and West Broad seem to represent irritations, even threats to some of Athens’ established power structure.  

Athens for Everyone, the “power to the people” nonprofit started by Tim Denson, whom Nancy (no relation) Denson defeated in Athens’ last mayoral race, has asked each ACC commissioner to answer a questionnaire. I found A4E’s website a good place to begin to get to know which commissioners exhibit liberal or progressive bonafides. Four commissioners so far have failed to respond. Read the answers given by those that have responded. Ask those who haven’t what their answers would be. Let’s all pay attention.