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Q&As with Commission District 3 Candidates Rachel Watkins and Melissa Link

Take a deep breath. It’ll all be over soon.

While voters will have to skate down to the polls one last time in November for state and federal elections, the finish line for local races is within sight. There’s just one more thing to knock out of the way: The Athens-Clarke County Commission District 3 race between Rachel Watkins and Melissa Link.

This race has become particularly divisive in the cheek-to-jowl district (Rocksprings, the Hancock Corridor, Cobbham, Boulevard and part of Normaltown). Link is cast as someone who’ll kick open the doors of government to let the light in or out of anger because someone disagreed with her. Watkins is nice, everyone agrees… maybe too nice.

Neither candidate, of course, should be boiled down to a stereotype. Flagpole quizzed both a little bit about personalities—but mostly about the real issues that are important to our readers.

Flagpole Magazine: With this being a district historically represented by an African American, what are you doing to reach out to that community?

Melissa Link: We knew what was going to happen two years ago when [the state legislature] redistricted. We knew the high turnout at Chase Street in primarily white, affluent neighborhoods was going to cancel out African American influence, which is part of the reason why I decided to jump in the race, because I felt like my first priority was to reach out to that community and be sure I can represent them. And so, I just hit the streets. That’s been the most fun of this campaign—just hanging out with everyday folks talking about issues that affect their lives.

Rachel Watkins: I’ve had an interesting experience talking to different African Americans of different generations. It’s unfortunate that there’s not an African American in the race. However, we don’t have a lot of African Americans in our government. I feel like we have to grow that leadership. In order to do that, you’ve got to start identifying young leaders.

Somebody I work with is Marvin Nunnally. He has a leadership academy of high school kids. They work really hard. I went to their graduation ceremony at the library. That’s one example of somebody trying to grow African American leaders.

I have [voters] who say they’re frustrated. “How can I vote for you? You don’t represent me.” I understand that, but this is how it is. I feel like it’s important for someone who’s involved, like me, to start growing leaders so we have more African Americans on the commission. It’s embarrassing!

FP: How do the concerns differ in that part of the district compared to Boulevard and Cobbham?

ML: There are so many people that aren’t even aware that they have the right to vote. Folks think that, once you commit a felony, you can never vote again. The fact of the matter is, once you pay your fines, you can vote again. I feel like if we can start educating folks and make a concerted effort to reach out to them, whether it’s through their water bill, or ads on buses, or through the probation office, letting folks know that, yes, you can vote and get registered, and also, let them know when the election is coming up. A lot of folks don’t know.

I walk through Cobbham and Boulevard, and we have nice new crosswalks, nice new ADA accessible ramps to get from one side to the other. I walk through other neighborhoods, and there are no sidewalks and crumbling curbs. It’s obvious, the disparity in our communities.

RW: The digital divide creates a whole different world. When we talk about the Boulevard listserv, the Cobbham listserv, there are a lot of communities that don’t have WiFi, so there are no listservs. 

Now that CCSD has started up this one-to-one technology initiative where all the kids take home laptops, there’s no WiFi for kids to use them. That would be helpful not only for students, but for their parents, too.

District 3 has a lot of loud, loud people [ Editor’s Note: “loud, loud” came out in the paper as “loudmouth” through a transcription error which we deeply regret and for which we apologize to Rachel] who want to make Prince Avenue safer, and a lot of people have concerns like, there’s not enough bus service, the buses don’t run late enough. That’s just two totally different things. The person who wins this race has got to deal with huge, different concerns.

FP: What’s your preferred option for pedestrian safety on Prince Avenue?

ML: There are dozens of examples of other communities just like this with similar commercial corridors, similar traffic flows that have done three-laning, done a road diet. It works. It’s what you do. The fact that we’re debating it 10 years now, it’s just a symptom of this fear or idea that we have it so good here, why bother changing? Just do it, and maybe we can move onto the next street and make things more walkable and safer. Just do it. It’s not rocket science.

RW: I don’t have a preferred solution. The HAWK signal is too expensive, and it’s confusing, so there’d be a big education issue. 

I don’t know what the super solution is, but I know that to get something done on Prince Avenue, you’ve got to have compromise. Other commissioners have issues in their districts, and you gotta work together. So many people, when we talk about the government, think compromise is a dirty word. So many people are frustrated on the federal level, nothing’s happening, and that can’t be happening here.

I think what the people of D3 want is someone they can trust, someone whose morals and values are the same as theirs, and someone who will have civil discourse with other commissioners. Compromise isn’t a bad thing. Being nice isn’t a bad thing.

I’ve had a lot of people angered at the whole “nice” thing because it seems sexist. Would you be saying that about a man, you know? That’s an interesting point. I don’t think I’ve heard of a man politician being called too nice. And Melissa has said the same thing—people call her too harsh. I don’t think they’d say that about a man. So I think, no wonder you want to put us on the cover with the boxing gloves, because there are a lot of gender issues going on.

FP: Rachel, is there an example of an issue where you think you could have compromised?

RW: I don’t know, and you don’t know, the back story of what goes on. But after Selig won, we had that time, and one would think something would have happened. The planning commission wanted to meet about that [revisiting downtown design guidelines], and that never happened. That’s frustrating, and I think I would have said, “Come on, guys.”

Everybody talks about how great Greenville [SC] is, and that was 30 years in the making. I can’t think about five years down the road, I have to think about 30 years down the road.


Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Melissa Link awaits election results May 20.

FP: How do you feel about the way the new auditor was hired?

ML: If the mayor wanted to hire an interim auditor, why didn’t she do it a year ago? Steve Martin was sitting in retirement then. We could have been conducting a search for a real auditor this whole time. I don’t understand what the excuse is. Maybe they wanted to save the auditor’s salary for a year—they did that with the environmental coordinator.

Considering the lack of public input, that’s a real concern in this community. More and more folks feel like decisions are being made behind closed doors. 

And these boards and commissions: The economic development task force, a lot of their recommendations weren’t followed. The rail-trail committee wasn’t consulted during the Selig debate.

I saw a notice for this [Industrial Development Authority] meeting that was giving tax breaks for this hotel and wondered if this was a meeting I ought to go to. I asked for a copy of the agenda and never heard back. I shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to find out what these citizens committees are discussing.

We should definitely do more to publicize these meetings. We have the [Neighborhood Notification Initiative], but not a lot of folks know what NNI is. Maybe make it more prominent on the website. The ACC website is kind of bland and hard to navigate.

RW: I wish it hadn’t taken so long. It is one of Mayor Denson’s privileges to do it the way she did. But I want to see a national search. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be a national search. There has to be a national search.

Leisure Services—I wish we could rename it. I hate it when people refer to it as “the playground.” So many people are served by Leisure Services that don’t get services otherwise. I think that’s a huge untapped population that could have better services. I want to have more diverse services. I want to have a coding academy for girls. I want it to enrich people’s lives more than it does.

I’ve heard complaints about how, when a class is full, they haven’t hired another teacher. I’ve heard frustration with the general running of Leisure Services.

There are parks and rec departments that are run really, really, well, and to me, with our degree of poverty, our parks and rec department has a greater responsibility. 

FP: What do you like and dislike about the downtown master plan?

ML: I sat on the practicum committee for the student who took on College Square as part of the project, and College Square was not included at all. The fact that College Square was not included is very concerning, considering that during the public hearings, College Square was talked about most of all. I understand the traffic flow is not conducive to shutting it down, but there are other options for a town square, or maybe look at other parts of downtown for a proper town square. We don’t have a public space to gather, whether it’s for a festival, a protest, a vigil, whatever.

I would prioritize a public gathering space. I know Jack [Crowley] and his crew looked at City Hall and the parking lots behind there. I wish they’d looked at College Avenue in front of City Hall, because that’s an area with not a lot of traffic or a lot of parking spaces. It would be nice to see that become a real, proper town square in front of our beautiful City Hall.

And God knows we need stuff for people who aren’t ready to party downtown. People have kids, older folks. A place to hang out, have a picnic, maybe a splash pad and a bandshell. A space the whole public can enjoy, so it’s not just a rowdy fraternity party every single night.

RW: I do feel like it’s a mélange. It all can’t be done. We want a diverse community; we want a walkable community.

Athens is on all these retirement lists. Weekly, I have people call me at the Convention and Visitors Bureau and ask me, “Where can I live?” Given the fact that I like a walkable neighborhood, I don’t have many options to tell them.

I want to see Ryan Moore’s office [the ACC Economic Development Department] promote more small businesses, because that’s what gives us our charm. I understand Five Guys being downtown. I like having The Grill right there. It doesn’t seem like The Grill’s suffering too bad because of Five Guys, but you’ve got to have a mix. I’m not saying don’t do big-box. There’s an Urban Outfitters in downtown Asheville [NC], so I’m not freaked out the UGA Bulldog [apparel] place is leaving.

I do PR and marketing. I want to see the city of Athens use all the cool and eclectic stuff to bring people here. I send people to Barber and Tracy Street. I think our vision of downtown has got to change.

FP: It feels like we’re ceding downtown to the students and tourists and the grownups are staying in Five Points and Normaltown.

ML: Our downtown defines us in so many ways. It’s our town center. It’s what people think of when they think of Athens.

When I first moved to Athens, which was 21 years ago now, I thought it was the funky, diverse environment. It’s really not that anymore. That’s kind of what put us on the map. We’re losing our grasp on who we are. It’s not just who we think we are; it’s who the world thinks we are.

I really think we need to look for a downtown master plan that’s going to be open to diverse businesses with diverse clientele. Sure, that will include students, but why not look at some townhomes for families, retirees, young professionals, not just towers of student condos? We’re more than just a college town.

RW: I don’t know if we can reverse it. Student housing’s not going away. And it’s not like all the students are going to walk, although they should.

Look at a game day. The adventurous people may get to The Grit or to Avid. They may get that far down. But it’s true, it feels like maybe Normaltown is booming to avoid the students. We wouldn’t be who we are without the students, but it is true that it’s a double-edged sword.

What people want is the unusual and the quirky, and I think we have a lot of that, but I think we need to make opening a small business easier. I don’t think we need to get bogged down in how many parking spaces you have to have, especially if you know it’s going to be a walkable business, because what’s going to employ people are small businesses. That’s something that’s near and dear to my heart.

My campaign has spent every single dime in the district and the city and the county. That’s really important to me. And I’ve spent more money on certain things, for example yard signs. [Editor’s note: Link bought campaign materials from a South Carolina print shop. She said she chose the shop because the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which endorsed her, recommended it as a union shop.] I think you have to put your money where your mouth is. Working for an independent bookshop—where the books may cost more than [Amazon]—it’s worth it, because you’re putting money back into the local economy.

FP: Rachel, if you win, you’re resigning from the CVB, right?

RW: Some people say it’s not a conflict. It absolutely is. Plus, I don’t want three part-time jobs.

FP: Melissa, your opponents are saying you’ve made too many enemies and ostracized yourself. How do you respond to that?

ML: As an activist, it’s kind of your job to be a little rowdy and use strong language because you don’t have any power. When you’re within the power structure, you can sit back and talk sweet and get work done. When you’re an activist, it’s your job to raise awareness, and oftentimes you’re dismissed by the power structure.

I can play both roles. I’ve sat on enough boards and commissions that I can do that, too. I feel like if I get behind the rail, I wouldn’t have to scream and yell. I’m just ready to get some work done. I want to solve some problems and work with folks to find the palatable compromise. It feels like most compromise is made on behalf of a vocal, moneyed minority, rather than the majority of everyday people.

FP: Are you going to be able to work with Mayor Denson and the people who supported her?

ML: I hope to. I’m eager to have a real conversation about what our priorities are and what the issues are. I enjoy open conversations, even if they’re difficult and embarrassing. I feel like that’s a reason we’re not moving forward: We’re afraid to have these conversations. It’s not polite to talk about poverty. It’s not polite to talk about things we disagree about. But we’re not going to get beyond that and solve our problems if we can’t talk about them. It’s not about nodding and smiling and pretending everything’s OK.

This article has been updated to correct a transcription error.