NewsNews Features

Progressive Activist Challenges District 6 Commissioner

The District 6 race for Athens-Clarke County Commission is another that pits an incumbent with a wealth of experience against a younger upstart who brings his own set of fresh ideas to the table.

Jerry NeSmith, 71, has represented the Westside district since 2013. Prior to that, he served for 10 years on the ACC Planning Commission. The retired University of Georgia IT director is also a member of the board of directors of Advantage Behavioral Health Systems, a mental health and addiction nonprofit, and leads a committee devoted to the revitalization of Atlanta Highway—both have been signature issues for him during his time on the commission.

Jesse Houle, 34, got involved in local politics during the Occupy Athens movement of 2011, then went on to work on now-commissioner Tim Denson’s 2014 mayoral campaign and become a founding member of Athens for Everyone. They now work at Nuçi’s Space. (Houle prefers gender-neutral pronouns.) A fixture behind the podium during public comment at commission meetings, they’re now looking to move behind the rail. 

Both candidates recently answered a few questions from Flagpole to help voters decide. Election Day for nonpartisan commission races is June 9, and early voting begins May 18. Absentee ballots are now available from the ACC Board of Elections.

Flagpole: How would you rate Athens-Clarke County’s response to the coronavirus pandemic?

Jesse Houle: Our local government has stepped up meaningfully while the state and federal government flounders. This highlights both the importance and limits of local government. We’d be better equipped in these times had ACCUG been more proactive before now.

We should make current emergency measures permanent, such as fare-free bus service, an emptied jail, increased indigence resources and humane policing. We also need to strengthen measures under consideration, including eviction reform, creative direct aid that navigates the gratuities clause and a New Deal-style jobs program.

I’m heartened by the cultural shift of our county manager and attorney inviting our mayor and commission to lead in policy development. The commission must step up and do so.

Jerry NeSmith: Given the resources at our disposal, I give our community a very high rating for the following reasons: ACC was one of the very first jurisdictions in Georgia to implement a shelter-in-place emergency order. The commission gave the county manager power to modify the emergency order to list essential business and rules of no-contact protocols as new information arrives. (The governor’s emergency order superseded that order.)

With the $3 million-plus Resiliency Package, we are responding within our financial and legal limits to the needs of affected employees, businesses and the indigent community. The strategy and organization of this package will roll out in phases, beginning with the $150,000 grants awarded on Apr. 14 to four indigent care agencies.

We are working hard to collaborate with partners/providers to consolidate resources and reduce duplication of services. We are collaborating with and empowering Envision Athens, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce (Athens Works Initiative) and the newly formed Athens Arts Coalition, a coalition of several arts organizations with the resources of the Arts Division of the ACC Leisure Services Department.

We are communicating daily as a government and as individual commissioners to our constituents about local events, opportunities and news relevant to coronavirus and shelter in place.

FP: What is your plan to reduce Athens’ persistently high poverty rate?

JH: Any plan must recognize the violent legacy of systemic racism and discrimination as roots of economic injustice. Additionally, this community is wealthy; the problem is distribution. Poverty exists within record-level inequality. People are working hard but don’t get their fair share.

Understanding this, we need substantive redress aligned with broader social movements. Working with organizations like Dignidad Immigrante en Athens, the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement and the Linnentown Project, healing must be led by those directly harmed to engender the creative, effective solutions we know are possible. Specifically: living wages for all county workers, a tenants’ bill of rights, expanded public transit, decriminalization, public childcare, inclusionary zoning, land banking and reparations.

JN: The poverty rate in our community has not changed over the last several years—37%, or, when excluding UGA students, 28%. 

Many of our residents live from paycheck to paycheck. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, we expect this situation has worsened already and may continue so until we are in a local economic recovery. So now we must do what is required to enter into a local economic recovery, beginning with the Resiliency Package and going forward with incentives and programs from the government and our partners to bring back our local businesses and support those who are struggling as a result of the pandemic.

In the mid-term and going forward, I support developing a strategic initiative using the findings of the “Network for Southern Economic Mobility in Athens” study published in 2019. That study emphasized creating opportunities around family support, race/equity, workforce and development, education and social capital/stability.


Jesse Houle.

FP: What would you do to protect the arts and music scene and assist the local businesses that make Athens unique?

JH: Most artists cobble together a living from part-time jobs and gigs. We must acknowledge the precarity of labor locally and generally exacerbated by the woes of working in an “at will” state. Many Athenians aren’t paid for all their hours, have tips stolen and suffer abuse, harassment and unethical termination. Workers deserve resources to understand, expand and assert their rights with workers’ centers, subsidized legal counsel and better enforcement of existing laws.

First, focus the Resiliency Package and COVID-19 relief explicitly on local businesses and individuals who are not reached by federal aid. Then, enact comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, designate western downtown an historic district, and advance zoning laws that safeguard against further harmful development. Next, refocus the Economic Development Department to nurture local businesses with pro-worker policies and living wages. Recruit only large businesses and developers that meet a rigorous standard.

JN: There is already a great deal of activity taking place precipitated by the sudden loss of venues, touring opportunities and gathering places for artists and their audiences. My plan is for these initiatives to be encouraged and enabled to become permanent proponents and facilitators for our arts community, including music, theatre, fine art, graphic art and all domains of our arts community.

The Arts Division of Leisure Services has formed an Athens Arts Coalition that is working with a host of independent and government agencies to join forces in finding innovative ways to enable performing artists and graphic artists to work through the pandemic and create new support, promotion and venues in the future. The coalition can assist in writing grant proposals and raise matching funds to satisfy the requirements of those proposals. The participants will be encouraged and facilitated to utilize local radio stations, newspapers and their webpages to promote upcoming events and opportunities.

Children at risk must have access to the internet. Boys and Girls Clubs have a bank of tablets the children use. Raise funds to provide children with access to the library from home. Universal access to the internet. 

FP: Is it time to redevelop Georgia Square Mall? If so, what should be done with it, and what city resources should be brought to bear?

JH: Downtown, once a corporate hub, saw businesses flee to the mall. In their shells, our music and art scene grew. Likewise, in the mall’s withering husk, we may sow seeds for the next generation. We can’t legislate creativity; we facilitate its growth.

There are many exciting redevelopment ideas—a community rec center, workers’ center, cohousing… The District 6 commissioner’s role is to facilitate a community-led process by which a plan is made and carried out. This requires intensive outreach to bring in the whole community. My philosophy of collaborative governance leaves month-to-month maintenance for public servants and invites community members into the good stuff and the big stuff.

JN: The mall has great potential. The mall is an ideal place to implement an Athens Transit hub.  It would be the center of an expanded bus system that would better serve the needs of the Westside by expanding the range and the frequency of bus routes to include Caterpillar and main thoroughfares of our commercial corridors, our public service providers and our neighborhoods. It has an ideal location on Atlanta Highway (39,000 cars per day) and Loop 10.  Its footprint is about the size of downtown Athens. Redevelopment as a multi-use development with retail space, office space, housing, restaurants and public recreation is the future of this huge parcel. Housing, including market-rate and subsidized affordable housing, would fit well. 

It is important to understand that the mall is private property. What we must do to encourage thoughtful, successful and needed development occurs includes: creating a Tax Allocation District that includes the mall, so that capital is raised to make capital improvements and provide development incentives; amend our stormwater, zoning and land-use ordinances to encourage re-development; incentivize inclusion of affordable housing and public facilities; and work with Hendon Properties, LLC, the owner of the property, to envision a development that achieves objectives of the owner and the county.

FP: Please list any other issue(s) you feel are important and your solution(s).

JH: We must end unpaid inmate labor, which is present-day slavery. Instead, convert that necessary work into living wage jobs with hiring focused on formerly incarcerated people.

Publicly operate 911 and emergency medical services through our fire departments. This means no contract renewal with the for-profit company, National EMS. Until then, we need transparency, accountability and ACC dispatching all 911 calls.

Athens’ outermost neighborhoods need to be looped in. This means adequate sewer and stormwater infrastructure; expanded sidewalk, bike, and trail networks; and trash, recycling and bus services covering the whole county.

Finally, commissioners must share power and rethink how government operates, bringing it out of City Hall while being more transparent, accessible and accountable. Regular town halls, participatory budgeting, and community-driven redevelopment of spaces like the mall are great first steps.

JN: The pandemic will have an unpredictable impact on the tax revenue of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County. I would build an FY21 budget that is conservative but can be amended as impacts become clearer.

The ACC anti-discrimination ordinance is narrow and difficult to enforce. Implement broader, more enforceable anti-discrimination ordinances.

The vast majority of ACC contracts are awarded to companies outside of Clarke County. Amend ACC procurement policies to give preference and enable local businesses to win contracts, supporting those businesses and keeping spent tax money in our local and regional economy.

Few sidewalks, no trails and no pedestrian/bicycle connectivity exist in District 6. Build a sidewalk/trail system on the west side, particularly on Mitchell Bridge Road, connecting to Timothy Road.

There has been no collaborative planning or problem solving between Athens-Clarke County Unified Government and the Clarke County School District, resulting in imbalanced school attendance zones, uninformed future planning, and duplication of effort. Continue to build a collaborative relationship with the Clarke County School District to facilitate smart planning by both entities; cooperate on job training initiatives and other mutual interests.

Half of our jail inmates have diagnoses of behavioral disorders before their incarceration and are recidivists. Improve the criminal justice system to provide behavioral health services.