The race to succeed term-limited Mayor Nancy Denson pits two experienced commissioners from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum against a self-described “outsider” who’s never held office. Kelly Girtz has served on the commission for more than 11 years, and Harry Sims served for 25 before resigning recently to avoid a costly special election solely to fill his seat.
Girtz grew up in Norfolk, VA and moved to Athens about 20 years ago, attending graduate school at Piedmont College and becoming a teacher, then principal at the alternative Classic City High School. Known as a wonky, pragmatic progressive who’s open to compromise, Girtz has a series of detailed policy proposals on issues like affordable housing, economic development and environmental sustainability that can be viewed on his website.
Sims—the first black varsity athlete at UGA and a teacher for nearly three decades at Barrow Elementary—is generally considered one of the more conservative commissioners and usually backs the county staff’s recommendations. His campaign is less about specific proposals than a style of governing: He believes the government caters to intown “squeaky wheels” at the expense of those outside the Loop who don’t have time to attend meetings. While he has expressed skepticism about many progressive policies, such as fare-free transit, bike lanes, decriminalizing marijuana and tax incentives for affordable housing, he has said he’d let those ideas go through the committee system rather than use his power as mayor to block them.
Richie Knight is running as a fresh face and a successful entrepreneur, although numerous former employees have accused him of wage theft, and three of his campaign managers have quit, with two defecting to Girtz. The first openly gay and Latino mayoral candidate in Athens history, he has combined progressive views on social issues with a business-friendly economic platform and a right-leaning stance on public safety; for example, he is in favor of beefing up the local police force.
The Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee has declared both Sims and Girtz to be “qualified Democrats,” while the majority of Republicans supported Sims in a recent straw poll, and the progressive group Athens for Everyone has endorsed Girtz.
Occupation: Commissioner and regional director for student services, Foothills Education Charter High School
Residence: Pulaski Street
Websites: Votegirtz.com, facebook.com/VoteGirtz
Top priorities (from Girtz’s candidate questionnaire):
1. Affordable housing. We need more affordable housing in Athens. As mayor, I will propose permanently freezing property taxes for low-income seniors. I will advocate for setting aside at least $15 million of SPLOST funds over five years to buy down costs and incentivize the development of permanently affordable housing units. I will lead efforts to develop and enact an inclusionary zoning program to incentivize developers to directly build–or make contributions to a housing fund for–affordable houses and apartments.
2. Economic development. Athens is a potential economic jewel. We’re the home of the state’s flagship university. We’ve got a vibrant, renowned cultural scene. We got great neighborhoods, and dramatically improving local schools. We need to take advantage of these assets. I will push to create an ambitious incubator space for design, tech and creative industries, and fight to create special tax districts to fund improvements. As Mayor, investing in neighborhoods and schools will be a key economic development strategy. These are the ways to attract more employers to locate here.
3. Inclusion and diversity. Making sure Athens is welcoming to everyone is absolutely essential. I will actively recruit citizens from all walks of life to serve on local boards and commissions. I will continue to support creating an empowered local civil rights commission. I stand with local immigrants, and oppose unconstitutional detention and arrests.
4. Strong neighborhoods and schools. There is now substantial research that says that two-thirds of educational outcomes are related to circumstances outside the classroom and outside the school building. While our local government’s role as a collaborator with formal boards of education is certainly valuable, we can do even more to improve educational outcomes for our children by creating safer, more accessible neighborhoods. For example, we can support policy and zoning changes that allow for smart development that protects our neighborhoods, creating streets that are walkable and safe for kids and bikes with easy access to parks and recreational facilities. We should also take advantage of programs that already exist, such as expanding the Great Promises Partnership.
5. Environmental priorities. Keeping local rivers and streams clean is good environmental practice, but it’s also good for economic development because people want to live near clean, beautiful waterways. I support keeping riparian buffers intact. Let’s expand our tree canopy, particularly near waterways. Let’s set ambitious goals for energy efficiency and low carbon emissions for all ACC buildings and vehicles.
Occupation: Marketing company owner
Residence: East Washington Street
Top priorities: N/A
Occupation: Retired teacher and commissioner
Residence: Cone Drive
Top priority: Jobs
Knight and Sims did not complete Flagpole’s candidate questionnaire.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.