Kirrena Gallagher ran for the Clarke County Board of Education in 2020 because she wanted to help students. But once she got on the board, she realized her impact was limited.
“As a school board member, I was frustrated,” says Gallagher, the mother of two teenage sons and owner of a small daycare business that’s on hiatus during the campaign. “I wanted to help [families] navigate the system, but I didn’t have the power. There’s not much we can do to directly impact students.”
So when Mariah Parker announced their resignation from the District 2 seat on the Athens-Clarke County Commission in August, Gallagher saw an opportunity. She quit the school board in December and signed up to run for the vacant seat, believing she could use her influence as a commissioner to guide resources toward youth.
Melissa Link also saw an opportunity. She was already on the commission, but was about to lose her District 3 seat because Republicans in the state legislature had moved the district lines. However, she was eligible to run in the new District 2 once Parker left. “A majority of my constituents got screwed over,” Link says. “They lost their chance to vote for their representative for basically a full cycle.”
The new District 3 shares no territory with the old one that Link represented, but about 70% of the old District 3 are now part of District 2. It’s a crescent-shaped district that runs from Hawthorne Avenue and the Hancock Corridor through Normaltown and Boulevard, skirts downtown to the north near Bethel Midtown Village, and extends across the North Oconee River to the Chicopee-Dudley or inner East Athens area. Both candidates agree that the new district lines and the timing of the special election are a challenge in engaging voters.
Link already knows most of the territory, having represented it for eight years. Residents of Newtown and Pulaski Heights have been calling her for years, she says, so those areas aren’t entirely unfamiliar either. East Athens is gentrifying, but Link says the older Black residents who remain tell her they appreciate her efforts to protect Black neighborhoods.
Across the district, Link says the concerns are similar: the influx of student housing, lack of sidewalks, a need for traffic calming. The difference is, traditionally Black neighborhoods “haven’t gotten the infrastructure investment. They don’t have the commercial investment” like the largely white neighborhoods along Prince Avenue.
As property values and taxes go up in East Athens, ACC should direct more services that way, Gallagher says. “If we’re going to raise property taxes, we need to make sure we have quality everything,” she says.
One infrastructure issue the new commissioner may have to face almost immediately is the fate of a multi-use path on Barber Street. The commission voted in February to table it until the new District 3 commissioner takes office.
Link supports the multi-use path along most of Barber, but has resigned herself to UGA students who live between Prince and Boulevard bringing their cars, so she opposes removing on-street parking there. Instead, she supports speed humps to slow down drivers.
Gallagher says she’s not privy to enough information to make up her mind until she gets behind the rail. As a greenway and Firefly Trail user, “I appreciate us being or moving toward being a more walkable city,” she says. But she doesn’t think many people are using bike infrastructure like the new protected lanes on Prince.
As a commissioner and previously as an activist, housing and transportation have been Link’s wheelhouse, while Gallagher readily admits she’s still learning about those topics.
Gallagher is more focused on youth issues. More broadly, she wants to be a fresh, younger voice on the commission. She also touts her breadth of experience, from living in public housing to serving on the Athens Land Trust and Department of Family and Children Services boards. “I’ve been on both sides of things,” she says.
Link says she supports ACC-funded programs like the Athens Land Trust’s Young Urban Builders, which employs high-school students to fix up low-income seniors’ houses, and wants to see more like it. However, she says, “If your main interest is helping the youth, you probably belong on the school board or working for Leisure Services.”
Early voting runs through Friday at the ACC Board of Elections, ACC Library and Miriam Moore Community Center. Election Day is Tuesday, Mar. 21. Check the Georgia secretary of state’s My Voter Page at mvp.sos.ga.gov to find out if you are registered to vote in District 2.
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