In 2018, voters elected Kelly Girtz mayor of Athens-Clarke County in a wave election together with the most progressive commission in Athens’ history. Since taking office in 2019, Girtz and the new commission have enacted a wide-ranging series of reforms that have begun to address nearly every major problem the county faces. From homelessness and poverty to police oversight, youth development, climate change, discrimination and finally the deadly threat of the coronavirus, Girtz has overseen a huge amount of legislative work in a relatively short period of time.
For good or ill, depending on your perspective, Athens may never be the same.
Girtz won 60% of the vote four years ago, but the political climate has changed since 2018. This time around, Girtz has five challengers and is facing an insurgent Republican party backed by a new political force in town, Athens Clean and Safe PAC.
While Girtz might end up winning comfortably, the outcome is difficult to predict with so many candidates running. The election, scheduled for May 24, may be headed for a runoff in June, a time when voter turnout will be extremely low. If that happens, all bets are off on who emerges the winner.
Throughout his first term, Girtz was beset by a series of crises that started even before he took office. A major conflict between senior ACC staff members, including former ACC Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox, was brewing in late 2018. Girtz was accused of discrimination by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement for his attempts to discipline Maddox for failing to perform her job duties, although Maddox’s complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was dismissed, and an outside investigator hired by the county likewise found no evidence of discrimination.
Later that year, Girtz’s focus was again drawn into an internal crisis, this time in the former ACC Animal Control Division, where dozens of cats were unnecessarily euthanized. He oversaw that division’s upgrade to the new Department of Animal Services.
The coronavirus pandemic was waiting just around the corner to disrupt nearly every aspect of our lives. Girtz and commissioners dispersed millions of local tax dollars, as well as federal relief funds, to keep businesses afloat, provide food and housing, create broadband hotspots for virtual students and incentivize vaccination.
Amidst dealing with that crisis, the George Floyd protests burst out in June 2020, and Girtz faced criticism when local police tear-gassed peaceful protesters.
“There’s been a series of real challenges in this local government,” Girtz told Flagpole, “but we haven’t allowed ourselves to become mired in them.”
That’s despite Republican hostility becoming a theme of his administration. When ACC attempted to shift Athens’ property tax system to a more progressive model that would have frozen taxes for those on low or fixed incomes, the plan was blocked by Republican state legislators who wanted a larger homestead exemption for everyone, including the wealthy.
Athens was among the first cities in Georgia to issue a stay-at-home order and establish a mask mandate. Perhaps due to this quick and decisive action, Athens ended up with the lowest COVID-19 mortality rate of any urban county in Georgia. However, Gov. Brian Kemp battled such efforts by local governments. Then, earlier this year, Republicans unilaterally reshuffled commission districts and ousted three progressive incumbents.
Still, in his recent “state of the community” speech, Girtz touted historically low levels of unemployment (2.2% in December 2021), record-high retail spending, a rapid pace of business expansion and a decrease in many types of crime, including murder, larceny and burglary.
“I live and breathe the reality that we’re doing measurably good work,” Girtz said. “Whether it’s being honest about some of the foibles of the former city of Athens around Linnentown, or very strategically advancing our clean energy goals, or extending our transportation network or bringing new high-wage employers to the table, we wake up and take that seriously every day.”
Over the past four years, the mayor and commission have begun planning to reach 100% clean energy, created an alternative to policing, started a public safety oversight board, established programs to prevent evictions and to help those experiencing homelessness, reduced fares on Athens Transit to zero, adopted a new green building code for ACC buildings, created a new Office of Equity and Inclusion, removed the confederate monument from downtown, established a comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance and made the first official act of reparations in Georgia history.
There’s more—like a voluntary inclusionary zoning policy to encourage the construction of affordable housing in Athens and a public-private partnership to create more affordable housing by redeveloping Bethel Midtown Village north of downtown. The Mayor and Commission have also established a wide-ranging framework for spending Athens’ share of the American Rescue Plan that may help address nearly every major problem Athens faces, providing millions for affordable housing, homelessness, workforce support, youth development and behavioral health over the next five years.
Despite these initiatives, Girtz acknowledges that Athens still has a lot of problems that the local government must work to address in the years ahead.
“There are still dramatic disparities,” Girtz said. “You can see the unemployment rate for the community broadly, and you can look to see the rate for Black men aged 18 to 30. Those are two very different numbers. It’s important to me that we be honest about the gains that we still have yet to make and that we need to work on.”
Given these persistent inequities, it’s understandable that some Athenians have been dissatisfied with Girtz’s tenure as mayor. Girtz, who proclaimed at his inauguration that “a new era of equity approaches,” perhaps hasn’t been able to make as much progress on economic and racial equity as many Athens residents were hoping for.
But Girtz is confident he can build a winning coalition and that his accomplishments will be recognized. “I’m really proud of the work we’re doing,” he said. “Maybe this comes from having taught history at some point in my life, but things don’t come into focus in the moment necessarily. It’s only in retrospect that we recognize how these things stack up.”
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