Photo Credit: Savannah Cole
It was the summer of Mariah!
Athens’ summer of 2018 can be summed up in two words: Police and politics. Both put Athens in the spotlight—and not always in a good way.
In what many Democrats hope is a sign of things to come in November, a progressive slate of candidates swept local offices May 22. Commissioner Kelly Girtz defeated his more conservative rival, former commissioner Harry Sims, by a two-to-one margin, with libertarian businessman Richie Knight running a distant third.
Girtz will be joined by five new commissioners, most of whom were younger than and ran to the left of their opponents. In District 1, Patrick Davenport beat incumbent Sharyn Dickerson. Longtime progressive activist Russell Edwards won the open District 7 seat. Commissioner Melissa Link won re-election in District 3 by running a more populist campaign than the equally progressive Tony Eubanks, while Athens for Everyone founder Tim Denson did the same to incumbent Jared Bailey in District 5. The lone exception was District 9, where four-term school board member Ovita Thornton beat Tommy Valentine in a race that was defined more by Thornton’s experience than any policy differences between the two. Public defender Lisa Lott ousted recently appointed Superior Court Judge Regina Quick, and little-known Sandersville nurse Tabitha Johnson-Green was the surprise winner of a Democratic congressional primary.
The District 2 race—which Taylor Pass, scion of a prominent East Athens family, appeared to have sewn up until activist and hip-hop artist Mariah Parker jumped in at the last minute—was perhaps the quietest of the bunch. That changed June 5.
The rest of the new commissioners will take office in January, but Parker was sworn in earlier because Sims resigned to run for mayor. She took the oath of office on a copy of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, quickly going viral and drawing the attention of dozens of national and international media outlets—not to mention thousands of racist Facebook trolls.
The denizens of the dark corners of the internet were out in force, too, after rookie Athens-Clarke County police officer Taylor Saulters hit a fleeing suspect with his police car in early June. Saulters and another officer were patrolling Nellie B Avenue when they spotted Timmy Patmon, a 24-year-old who had a warrant out for his arrest. (The warrant stemmed from Patmon missing a probation hearing after he took the rap for his girlfriend’s drugs when he was stopped because a woman falsely accused him of theft.) Saulters tried to block Patmon with his car, blew a tire, then turned the vehicle into the fleeing suspect (who was not seriously injured).
An internal investigation found that Saulters violated department policy by using excessive force. While many defended Saulters’ actions—including Oglethorpe County Sheriff David Gabriel, who hired him two days after he was fired by ACCPD Chief Scott Freeman—most locals saw them as another example of police brutality against African Americans and applauded Freeman.
Parker was back in the news later that month, this time in her role as a musician. As rapper Linqua Franqa, she hosted the Flagpole Athens Music Awards at the historic Morton Theatre, where jazz-funk band Misnomer won Artist and Album of the Year. The following day, she performed at an AthFest that will be forever remembered for a thunderstorm that forced performances to move under the beer tent. Other headliners included Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Family and Friends, Elf Power and The Connells.
Parker also had a busy first few commission meetings. In a five-hour marathon July 3, the commission approved historic districts along Milledge Circle and Castalia Avenue in Five Points, an amphitheater off Commerce Road near the Loop and incentives for downtown bars to stop serving beer in bottles. The commission is also wrangling with a master plan for Bishop Park and the Athens in Motion bike and pedestrian infrastructure plan, and is getting ready to start talking about sales-tax projects to fund with SPLOST 2020.
ACCPD was back in the national news in late July, when an officer pinned a young boy to the ground with his arms behind his back. The boy—variously described as 7, 9 or 10 years old—became frantic because his father was being arrested on domestic violence charges and launched himself at an officer, who restrained him on the ground and was confronted by relatives, one of whom posted a video on Facebook. While public opinion again was split, in this case Freeman sided with the officer, who was not disciplined.
On July 24, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, an Athens native, came from behind to upset Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and win the Republican nomination for governor. Kemp’s over-the-top ads featuring chainsaws, explosions, shotguns and pickup trucks prompted eyerolls—Winterville resident Mike Holcomb was quoted in The New York Times saying Kemp, a wealthy businessman, was “cosplaying a goober”—but his Trump-like campaign drew attention from the man himself, who sent Kemp skyrocketing to victory by tweeting his support.
In other news, an outside investigation completed in May criticized the Clarke County School District for its handling of the 2016 alleged sexual assault at Cedar Shoals High School, as well as for repeatedly hiring a coach who was later arrested on sexual abuse charges, despite several warning signs. Meanwhile, the school board is still unable to come to a decision on how to use the vacant West Broad School and whether to keep a popular community garden and farmers market on the site.
At UGA, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Pam Whitten left to become president at Kennesaw State University, and the United Campus Workers of Georgia union started a campaign to convince the university to reduce parking rates for low-paid employees.
In business, Athens for Everyone and several former emergency medical technicians accused National EMS, the company St. Mary’s and Piedmont Athens Regional hospitals contract with to provide ambulance service, of moving too slowly. National EMS is required to respond to 90 percent of calls within nine minutes, but state data obtained through an open records request indicates it’s nowhere near meeting that standard. (The company says critics are interpreting the data incorrectly.) Last month, National EMS was sold to Knoxville, TN-based Priority Ambulance.
And a new Athens Area Chamber of Commerce president recently started work. David Bradley is the former CEO of the chamber of commerce in Statesville, NC, a suburb of Charlotte.