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Q&A With New Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz

Twelve years ago, Kelly Girtz was set to take office as one of Athens-Clarke County’s youngest and most progressive commissioners. Now, he’s moving a few seats over to the mayor’s chair, where he’ll lead the commission, including a new batch of mostly young progressives—Patrick Davenport, Tim Denson, Russell Edwards and Ovita Thornton—who were also sworn in Jan. 8. (Mariah Parker, also elected in May, took the oath in June.) After eight years of relative inaction under Mayor Nancy Denson, they have their work cut out for them. But as Girtz said, “If I can teach middle school, I can do anything.”

The new mayor sat down with Flagpole in December to talk about his plans for the new administration, his path to City Hall and his favorite bands. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Flagpole: How does it feel to be sort of the elder statesman now?

Kelly Girtz: For 10 years, ever since Elton Dodson rolled off, I’ve been the youngest person up there. Now, at 47, I’m middle of the pack.

FP: Since Harry Sims left, you’ve been there longer than anybody.

KG: Two months longer than Andy [Herod]. He rolled in on that special election when States [McCarter] decided to take his toys and go home. It’s amazing how quickly that seemed to happen. That ’06 election still seems fresh to me. It’s been an amazing whirlwind.

FP: What’s changed between then and now in local politics?

KG: What I can account for is how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, when you think about the combination of youth development, economic development activity, poverty remediation, housing needs, transportation needs. I had the rudiments of some of that 12 years ago, and it’s not like I’m the be-all end-all expert, but I have a much better sense of how all those things tie together to create community health.

That’s true for me. For the community, I think people have increasingly experienced other places, even in the region, and have wondered why we haven’t kept up with aspects of peer communities—Asheville [NC] or Chattanooga [TN] or that standby, Greenville [SC].

I travel a lot. I’m in Gainesville, FL, at least once a year. Andrea’s dad has a place right outside of there, so I go check that out… Most of my extended family is from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. My mom’s in College Station, TX, and my dad’s in Norfolk [VA], where I grew up. So, I’ve had the opportunity to see places that are doing different, innovative, interesting things.

FP: What has been holding us back from keeping up with these peer communities?

KG: Some of it has been simply putting the mechanisms in place that are going to make us economically stronger and better connected—saying we’re not going to talk about corridor plans, we’re going to implement them; we’re not going to talk about financial tools like tax allocation districts, but we’re going to implement them. It’s doing something more than nibbling around the edges. It’s not putting down a big footprint, and it’s time to put down a big footprint to meet community needs.

FP: A lot of that seems politically motivated—kicking the can down the road as a way of avoiding a hard conversation. How do you change that dynamic?

KG: It is a willingness to have hard conversations, given that, for every positive action you do, there is some disruption or change in status quo. While the change in status quo might be uncomfortable, it means we’ll be in a much better place, not just next year, but in 2050. We want to leave our kids something better than we found it. If we continue to kick the can down the road, that’s not going to be true.

FP: How do you see the new commissioners changing the way the commission does business?

KG: I couldn’t be more excited about the new group in January. In mid-January, we’re going to have sort of an operational retreat, where we just talk about, “Hey, welcome to the team. Let’s talk about how we work together.”

In February, we’re going to talk about the what—policy and budget planning. How do we carry this into a real prosperous time for Athens?

One of the things everybody talks about is, how do we do public outreach in a better way, where we’re not getting the same 15 voices at the table? Some of that has to do with where we put the table, and some of it has to do with what kind of table it is.

Everybody talks about the diversity of the Athens community. One element of that diversity is we’ve got large portions of the community that are not hanging out on social media all day long, that are not looking for a survey on the web. We’ve got to be conscious of that and have multiple access points… In the same way I want infrastructure to connect people and resources, we need to be reaching out—building connections that have not been there.

FP: In May, you said you were going to have a package of legislation ready to bring forward after you took office. Is that ready? What’s in it?

KG: We’re going to see a housing package that contains both some incentives and some private-sector involvement to create mixed-income environments, whether that’s greenfield development or redevelopment.

We’re going to see criminal justice reform, some of which can be done by ordinance, but much of which has to be done by collaboration with the solicitor’s office, the judiciary, the probation office or the sheriff’s office.

We’re going to see lots of youth development activity. That’s going to extend to include things like the return of Grand Slam [a Leisure Services summer camp], and also a significant expansion around our work with Great Promise Partnership [a mentorship and jobs program for teens].

We’re going to see an enormous set of economic development activity. There are a few zones that are ripe for that, the Hawthorne [Avenue] corridor being a great example, Chase Park, Newton Bridge.

FP: How are you going to pay for all this stuff? Do you foresee a property tax hike?

KG: No. To a great degree, it’s just a shifting of priorities. If you’re talking about something like Great Promise, we do landscaping activities already. If we shift some of that money to horticulture activities that teenagers are doing, that’s just spending dollars in different ways that layer opportunities on top of one another.

In the criminal justice world, over the arc of time, I could see operational costs of our criminal justice system being reduced—in fact, not spending more money, but freeing up funds. I didn’t vote for the current or coming [state] administration, but that’s something Atlanta has done well. They’ve recognized the importance of criminal justice reform, and I don’t care whether somebody comes to the table out of a humanitarian mission or fiscal-sense sake, it’s important work.

FP: You’ve had a firsthand look at the criminal justice system at Foothills [Education Charter High School].

KG: That’s right. I’ve been in three state prisons every month for the past four years.

FP: Do you feel like the reforms Gov. Deal has put in place are working?

KG: There’s more work to be done, but it is working. I’ll say proudly, of every graduate of Foothills that’s been released into the community after their time in prison, there’s been no recidivism. None.

When I go into those prisons, those young people in those prisons are really no different than anyone I’ve ever taught. They’re not much different than I was at 16. I got picked up by the police a couple times, but they dropped me off at my doorstep, and my dad hollered at me. But we know that people of color have not often had that experience.

FP: Brian Kemp being from Athens, he didn’t get a lot of support here. Do you think he’s going to be hostile to Athens because of our politics, or is he going to help us because this is his hometown?

FP: I look at Gov.-elect Kemp’s background—before he was in the public sector, he was in the private sector as a developer—and he’s a person who wants to get things done, and he looks for a path there. While he and I may not see eye-to-eye on a state [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] or a lot of hot-button topics, I think when it comes to leveraging some of the resources that we share—whether that’s research and development activity at the university or youth development work or economic development work—that’ll be an opportunity for some shared terrain, in the same way [former Atlanta mayor] Kasim Reed and Nathan Deal were able to work together on some projects. We’re having coffee next week, and I’m looking forward to that.

FP: Twenty-something years ago, when you moved to town and you were delivering pizzas, did you ever think you’d be mayor and sitting down for coffee with the governor next week?

KG: There’s something of an out-of-body experience that comes with some of this, because I can still almost close my eyes and smell the stack of pizza pans I need to wash as if they’re right in front of me. But it’s exciting to think I’m able to employ some of my real, ground-level experience as a person, as a human being, in the seat of mayor. I live a very different life than I did 20, 25 years ago, but I’m not that far from it. What I’ve said and what I really think is, the positive journey I’ve taken in life, I’d like to be shared by as many as possible.

I certainly was never as economically challenged or socially challenged as some of the kids I work with. I was a working-class kid who worked hard and was supported by some really good people in my undergraduate years and in graduate school and in my professional career. Maxine Easom hired me to teach at Coile Middle School 21 years ago. To be given the opportunity to be on front porches all across this community as an educator has been really valuable.

And one thing I’ll say, coming from a service sector background—I delivered pizza for five years, worked in a record store for two years, worked at the Holiday Inn through grad school for two-and-a-half years—what I’ve brought into public ed and public policy-making is a customer-service approach, to ensure we’re always putting our best foot forward. It’s easy to grow comfortable, but having been in those positions reminds me that we can’t rest on our laurels. We always need to be asking ourselves how we can be doing a better job as an organization and for our 1,700 employees.

FP: A lot of people don’t know the mayor isn’t the boss of those employees.

KG: That’s right. I’m the boss of their boss, but I’m not their boss.

FP: Especially after Chief [Scott] Freeman was fired, a lot of people were surprised that the mayor and commission had nothing to do with that decision, and there was talk about, well, maybe they should. Should we change the charter to give the mayor more power?

KG: In the Clarke County School District, while the school board doesn’t have supervisory power over teachers or administrators, they do approve them every month, and even that has been fraught with problems. So, I don’t want to move in that direction, but what I do want to do is always be setting tangible goals. Two or three times a year, we’re going to be having half-day sessions where we follow up on those goals we’ve defined.

Some of what you’ve probably noticed in City Hall is commissioners insert paragraphs into the discussion behind the rail that seem sort of detached from the agenda item under discussion at the time. Some of that is because there’s been a need for pressure release in things commissioners are interested in that don’t have a forum for conversation.

FP: That they can’t get on the agenda.

KG: That’s right. I want to create that format for continual conversation toward goal attainment. If we say we want a police department that’s very community-focused, in which police officers are engaging as human beings with the populace, let’s find out how to measure that and how to track it.

FP: You have the power to set the agenda as mayor. Do you plan on wielding that power strictly or letting commissioners drive that train?

KG: That’s what those recurrent sessions are about. It’s saying, “All right, what do a cluster of us want to do?” While that’s a formal power of the mayor, I see that as one that’s best wielded in a shared way. I work best when I’m not working in a bubble, when I’m getting opportunities to have lots of conversations. I want to encourage that and create a format for that to happen.