Incumbent District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link, who fended off three challengers to win the seat in 2014, faces another challenge this year, this time from longtime activist Tony Eubanks.
But how will district voters choose their candidate? Link and Eubanks have almost identical platforms. According to their responses to Flagpole and other groups’ questionnaires, they share the same views on most policy questions, from marijuana decriminalization to bike infrastructure to a ban or fee on supermarket plastic bags. (They are both supporters.) They both have resumés stuffed with important local volunteer work for environmental, economic development and affordable housing organizations; they both favor transparency in government; and they both live within a few blocks of each other in the Boulevard neighborhood.
Link has lived in Athens for 25 years and works as editor of the UGA journal Ethics and the Environment. She has a strong record of service to her entire district, which includes Boulevard, Cobbham, the Hancock Corridor, the north side of Baxter Street, most of the central business district and some of the industrial area near the Loop.
Recognizing the dramatic increase of housing prices in her neighborhood—long an alternative bastion for artists and musicians and their friends—and what she refers to as the “negative economic and social impacts” of gentrification, Link frets that housing costs will push “the creative class into the suburbs and beyond and [threaten] the creative culture that put Athens on the map.” To counteract the effects of gentrification, she is campaigning to “protect renters from exorbitant rent increases… while reconsidering allowances for accessory structures” and “tweaking our single-family housing ordinance.”
Republican legislators added Boulevard to what was then a majority-minority district in 2012, and Link has forged relationships within the African-American community. However, some residents have been left out of the prosperity of their neighbors in the now-pricey mansions and craftsman cottages to the north.
For example, Link seized upon proposed changes to Athens’ future land-use map that would have allowed upzoning of “main street businesses” (think Normal Hardware) to “corridor businesses,” such as CVS. She reached out to the local community and alerted them to the potential changes, and the ensuing pressure caused a committee to remove the upzoning proposal before it even reached the commission. “I pay attention to the development issues because they affect people,” Link said. “I prod people to attend meetings.”
Eubanks has taken up issues of sustainability, more options for pedestrian and bicycle commuting, opposition to high rise-apartments and support for affordable housing. He poses interesting questions: Why isn’t Athens considered “business friendly” when it is experiencing unprecedented growth? Has the city created a vision for the way this growth should look? What can we do to help our neighborhoods pass “the popsicle test,” in which children can walk around the corner, purchase a popsicle and return home before it has melted?
“I can name six studies we’ve done that are sitting on a shelf. It takes political will and commitment” to implement them, he said.
Eubanks, who teaches accounting and tutors athletes at UGA, has been in Athens for almost 40 years and has fond memories of the rise of what he calls the “creative class” here. “The thing that makes Athens so cool is there are no jobs to speak of, so a lot of people end up inventing their own ‘outside the box’ jobs,” he said, adding that the city can do a lot to help retain these creative individuals.
He also has volunteered in citizen groups such as Complete Streets Athens to advance alternative transportation options, and has worked on updating the ACC Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan. “You hear criticism that we’re just trying to get transportation for leisure, for the well-off,” he said. “But there are a lot of people who don’t have cars to get to their jobs, so that’s one way the government can provide solutions.”
Why does Eubanks want to be on the commission? “Acting on [the city’s] plans takes vision and cooperation. I’ve proven that I have both through my volunteer activities.”
When asked for what they consider the most important policy priority, they both seem to have similar goals. Eubanks told the progressive group Athens for Everyone he would “merge land-use planning and transportation planning because the two are inextricably linked… I think what’s not business-friendly [in Athens government] is not having clear priorities, and therefore not being able to articulate exactly what we expect in terms of development.”
Link listed: “Affordable housing. Local artists and musicians… put Athens on the map, and as our housing becomes less and less affordable, many… are leaving Athens for more affordable living situations. If we lose them, we lose a huge chunk of our soul!”
In the end, the decision may come down to style. Link is outspoken—too outspoken for some, but her supporters see her as a vocal champion. She sees herself as “an activist infiltrating the system,” as she said during her campaign launch event last month.
Eubanks prefers to work behind the scenes to build consensus. “I’m tired of nothing getting done,” he said at a recent candidate forum.
District 3 voters will choose May 22.
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