Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mike Hamby has been living every politician’s dream. When he first ran for the District 10 seat in 2008, no one ran against him—a rarity for an open spot. Same in 2012, and again in 2016. But he wasn’t so lucky in 2020.
Hamby’s first-ever challenger, Knowa Johnson, describes himself as “a facilitator and organizer with a genuine connection to my community.” The 49-year-old Orlando native is a relative newcomer to Athens, moving here in 2012, but has made a big mark in just eight years, starting the music promotion business United Group of Artists and co-founding the Athens Hip Hop Awards and the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement with his wife, Mokah Jasmine Johnson. With the AADM, he has successfully pushed for reforms, like an ordinance banning discrimination at downtown bars and restrictions on cash bail. The Johnsons have become one of Athens’ preeminent power couples, with Mokah running for state representative this year as well.
Not that Hamby, 50, hasn’t been busy, too. He currently runs an office-cleaning business, but he is also a burgeoning artist and has worked formerly as a waiter, substitute teacher, financial advisor, executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia and—what he calls “the best job ever”—wine salesman. As commissioner, he has served on the Economic Development Authority, Athens Downtown Development Authority, Pension Board and Government Operations Committee.
Both recently answered a few questions from Flagpole to help voters make up their minds before the June 9 election.
Flagpole: How would you rate Athens-Clarke County’s response to the coronavirus pandemic?
Mike Hamby: The Mayor and Commission took early and decisive action to adopt protective measures to prevent the spread of this virus. The M&C and our ACC staff are working every day to respond to community concerns and suggestions, addressing the daily changing issues with COVID-19, as well as planning a $3 million-plus local economic recovery effort. More importantly, the citizens, non-profits, schools, businesses and local health-care providers are doing the hard work of making sure neighbors are being looked after, people are getting necessary supplies and health concerns are being attended to. Athens deserves high marks for how we’ve come together to deal with this challenging situation.
Knowa Johnson: I agree with the decision to shelter in place and shut down businesses and schools. Given the nature of this crisis, the mayor and commissioners have made appropriate decisions.
Additionally, we must protect the financial health of our community, from small businesses to contractors without institutional safety nets. I agree with a moratorium to halt evictions, rent increases or utility cutoffs during this difficult time. I also know property owners have mortgages to pay, which is why we should call for suspension of mortgage payments.
In order to address the complexities of the situation, I’d like to see a permanent crisis response team assembled of government officials, nonprofit and private industry stakeholders, and community members. Through collaboration, this could increase our community’s resilience to this and future disruptions.
FP: What is your plan to reduce Athens’ persistently high poverty rate?
MH: The M&C allocated $4 million towards an effort to reduce poverty in Athens. The Prosperity Package has taken a first step by working with Family Connection-Communities in Schools for an expanded Neighborhood Leader Program. This program works to support and assist community members in poverty. We have also approved hiring grant specialists to leverage the $4 million for grant dollars that may be available for our efforts. The M&C identified topics to focus on in an effort to address the poverty rate, including physical and behavioral health, early childhood education, workforce development, business development support for minority and underserved communities, and stabilization efforts for neighbors in poverty. We anticipate utilizing a participatory budgeting process and intensive citizen and non-profit engagement to help identify future efforts. “We’re All in This Together” has been a theme for fighting a health virus impacting our community. If we apply that same spirit towards our poverty pandemic, then Athens will overcome poverty as well.
KJ: I plan to support the efforts of the Economic Justice Coalition, United Campus Workers of Georgia and those leading the push for living wages. I will also work with other commissioners to pinpoint the best model out of those on the table and those that are producing wanted results in other communities. I would like to see $1 million invested in each district for anti-poverty initiatives, and to form a diverse coalition of government, private and nonprofit stakeholders who are on the ground and serious about reducing this rate.
We should establish TADs in the areas most affected first. I will push for a ticket center for events where profits from sales could be used for community projects.
FP: What would you do to protect the arts and the music scene and assist the local businesses that make Athens unique?
MH: Athens’ economy should work for everyone, from workforce development for the manufacturing worker, to helping with website development for the artist, to supporting the restaurateur and baker to get their product into grocery stores, to assisting with the creation of more minority-owned businesses. We can do this by recognizing the arts as a career and structuring economic development incentives towards recruitment and retention of artisans, and establishing a creative incubator that offers space, grants and professional support. We should also create the same type of incubator for small minority-owned businesses. We need to harness the entrepreneurial efforts in Athens and create ways to introduce them to the world economy. This can be done for our maker economy by providing assistance and incentives to those exploring ways to increase their product reach within and beyond the borders of Athens. Furthermore, we can also develop incentives for small businesses to hire locally, and to offer second-chance opportunities.
KJ: Expanding our music and artistic culture can only be a benefit to Athens-Clarke County. It will help drive economic growth for our entire community by opening doors for more people to participate in the entertainment sector of the economy as both audience members and artists. The heart and soul of Athens is its artistic culture, and with just a little help, we could expand that goodness to touch many more lives.
I would push for a one-stop-shop for support and funding of the arts community through grants, collaborative fundraising and contact service opportunities. We should stop charging event producers for usage of the city-owned stage.
FP: Commissioner Hamby was once a super-district commissioner representing half the county. Would you push the legislature to restore super districts after the 2020 Census?
MH: Yes, and it’s been a state legislative request numerous times. Super-districts afforded everybody in Athens to have two representatives on the commission. Super-districts also created opportunities for commissioners to partner on zoning issues and on projects that have county-wide implications. For example, the pedestrian loop along Timothy and Mitchell Bridge that two commissioners are promoting: With super-districts, we would have at least four commission districts impacted to help make that happen. The same scenario could apply with a future proposal to bury the power lines along Milledge Avenue and elsewhere.
FP: Please list any other issue(s) you feel are important and your solution(s).
MH: The virus has shown that we need to be more diligent in finding ways for residents and local businesses to make ends meet during and after challenging times. A stronger revolving loan or grant program should be established to offer assistance during difficult times. The virus has also demonstrated how important regional partnerships are in dealing with the safety and health of our communities. The Northeast Georgia region shares two outstanding hospitals, both located in Athens, that service 17 counties. The region needs to be on the same page in dealing with any health-care crisis, and the establishment of a Regional Emergency Health Commission to develop a response plan for dealing with any future community health emergencies would be a good first step.
KJ: According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in Georgia, only 41 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 “extremely low-income renter households.” As a result, hundreds of thousands of Georgians pay more than half their incomes for rent (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).
Athens-Clarke County can do better than financial segregation. By weaving mixed-use affordable housing throughout the county (and other policy solutions), we can strengthen the fabric of our communities and schools, and help to stitch shut the opportunity gaps through which low-income families can so easily slip.
We should pass a parallel ordinance to reduce the penalty of marijuana possession that disproportionately affects people of color.
We need to get serious about the wealth gap in Athens by supporting low-income, middle-income and minority entrepreneurs through grants and other opportunities.
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