The race for Athens-Clarke County Commission District 5 pits the cool, experienced incumbent against the surprisingly knowledgeable and youthful upstart and the cheerful, successful entrepreneur—all with a good grasp of the issues facing the county as a whole and the northwest Athens district in particular.
Commissioner Jared Bailey has been heavily involved in local civic life and the music scene for 30 years. He founded this publication, launched AthFest more than 20 years ago and co-owned and managed the 40 Watt Club, among other business ventures. Bailey refers to himself as a “social entrepreneur” and can point to numerous “green” projects he has undertaken or supported as commissioner, including the recently approved solar array at the Cedar Creek wastewater treatment facility; low-emission, fuel-efficient hybrid transit buses; and creating more trails and lanes for bicycle commuters.
Bailey echoes some of the concerns many have voiced about Mayor Nancy Denson, and as the incumbent he speaks knowledgeably of the challenges of merely putting issues up for a vote. “The mayor has absolute power to put items on the agenda,” he says. “[District 3 Commissioner] Melissa Link once asked the mayor what it would take to put a ban on plastic grocery bags on the agenda. She replied, ‘You’re going to have to have a new mayor.’”
Bailey also offered his vision of economic development, citing a recent study about attracting creative types in their 30s. To lure this important demographic, which every city and town seems to be pursuing, Bailey said the commission is looking at improving amenities such as alternative transit, accommodations for pedestrians and cyclists, pocket parks and green spaces, and local investment capital.
Summing up his first two terms, Bailey reveals his occasional impatience with local government, and quotes his remarks from a recent Mayor and Commission review of the manager and other county staff: “It is easy to say no. We can always find an excuse or loophole or some obscure reason to rest on our laurels. It is always easier to maintain inertia than it is to break its bonds. Yes, it takes a lot of work to get things moving in the right direction. However, we need to stop taking the easy way out. Finding new ways to move forward takes imagination, faith and a willingness to take on some risk.”
One issue that has dogged Bailey is his residency. For several years, he lived with his wife in Oconee County while maintaining a legal residence within District 5, but now he has moved back into the house on Marsha Court he has owned since 2004.
Bailey doesn’t speak much behind the rail and tends to work outside of the public eye, which may have left him open to his challengers, each of whom suggest they will offer improved “transparency.”
Tim Denson, an activist and 2014 mayoral candidate, espouses a comprehensive view of the county’s business that took shape during his consistent and voluntary attendance at commission meetings. He worked with Occupy Athens and later founded Athens for Everyone to support the poor and the working class.
Denson’s platform includes “local first” economic development, affordable housing, local civil-rights legislation and support for black-owned businesses. When pressed on these lofty goals, Denson gives a detailed example of the dire consequences faced by people who, arrested for minor infractions, are then asked to produce bail to be released. For those without the necessary cash, this means the accused might spend a couple of nights in jail waiting for the judge to hear the case. “Before someone is even found guilty, they might find themselves facing problems much bigger than the infraction they were arrested for,” Denson says, “such as losing their job or even their home.”
Denson adds that Atlanta and other cities are reworking these laws to make them less onerous to the poor, even as the state of Georgia attempted—and failed—to block Atlanta from passing those reforms. Denson cites an Atlantic magazine story quoting MIT’s Peter Temin, who theorizes that it “requires 20 years of nothing going wrong to escape poverty.”
“True justice should be a priority for everyone,” Denson says.
Denson also cites other examples of his contributions as a local activist, including successful campaigns to implement Sunday bus service, living wages for county employees and body cameras for local police.
Photo Credit: Courtney Cooper Johnson
Also in the race is Danielle Benson, an entrepreneur who owns the Epps Bridge Massage Envy franchise and recently launched a construction firm with her husband, Reese, when he left the family business a few years ago. Why does Benson (all these rhymes!) want to be on the ACC commission? “I want to serve Athens,” she says. I’ve been given a lot by this city… and I felt like it’s my turn to give back to Athens.”
Her platform offers a clear alternative to her rivals. On economic development, she focuses on marketing Athens: “I would celebrate artists and small businesses. I think Athens needs a brand,” she says, referencing campaigns by the Athens Downtown Development Authority, Convention and Visitors Bureau and ACC Economic Development Department. “You wouldn’t know it was the same town—nothing says that we are Athens.”
Emphasizing the importance of business, Benson wants to ease regulatory challenges. “I have spoken with a lot of business owners,” she says. “We have a perception… that Athens is unfriendly to business.”
Benson—who consistently votes in GOP primaries and has donated to Republican candidates, according to voting and campaign finance records—is referred to by the progressive group Athens for Everyone as a “solid Republican with no platform,” a characterization she bridles at, calling herself an independent.
Yet even with her business-first image, Benson is vocal on social issues as well. She is enthusiastic about her experience with the Citizen Police Academy, a program for Athens residents who want to learn more about local law enforcement. From her experience, which included ride-alongs with officers, Benson says she learned that “ACC police has a 100 percent commitment to mitigate bias and profiling.” Programs provide “continuing training [to help officers] learn how bias affects us, and to let go of that bias… Our police department is taking every step they can.”
According to her A4E candidate response, Benson also supports marijuana decriminalization, the establishment of an Athens Civil Rights Committee and improved bike and pedestrian infrastructure, all of which place her in the progressive camp.
Benson also says she would work for her District 5 constituents by helping establish a police substation and making the Prince Avenue corridor safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
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