Three candidates vying to become Athens-Clarke County’s next mayor sought to distance themselves from each other Monday in the campaign’s first public forum.
Richie Knight, Kelly Girtz and Harry Sims faced off at the Athens-Clarke County Library’s Appleton Auditorium, giving brief statements about who they are and why they are running, then answering questions from the audience and from the group that organized the forum, the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.
The three candidates include two longtime members of the Athens-Clarke Commission, Sims and Girtz, and political newcomer Richie Knight. Sims and Girtz are both stepping down from the commission to run for mayor. Sims resigned his seat last month to give election officials time to schedule an election for his seat on the same election day, May 22, as the mayor’s race and several other commission seats. Girtz didn’t have to resign because his term is up at the end of the year.
Voters will also decide races for the Athens-Clarke Commission, the Clarke County Board of Education and other nonpartisan offices that day, and will decide Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, the state Legislature and other offices in party primaries.
Knight, a small business owner, used his relative outsider status to criticize the government, though he didn’t specifically name Girtz or Sims.
He decided to run when he saw “how scary the future might be,” saying he could bring a “fresh perspective” to Athens-Clarke government.
“You are the reason I decided to run for mayor of Athens-Clarke County,” Girtz told the audience, describing a “vibrant community” that’s “in some ways full of challenges.”
Sims said one of the main reasons he’s running is that “some people feel left out.”
“I want everyone to be included in the process,” he said.
Knight said the Athens-Clarke government is unfriendly to business; a complaint city leaders have heard many times over the years.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got a government that’s been unfriendly to business,” Knight said in response to a question about how Athens-Clarke County can avoid “a race to the bottom” with growing Oconee County. All public officials should have to go through the process of starting a business, he said.
Oconee County is now wrestling with its own problems as the county faces the costs of growth, Sims said, specifically the price of expanding its water and wastewater treatment capacities.
“They’re going to have to increase taxes,” he said.
As to whether the government is unfriendly to business, “It depends on who you ask,” Sims said, recalling a conversation with a restaurant franchiser who’d opened dozens of stores in 12 states. The easiest government to work with was Athens-Clarke, he said.
Girtz noted that sales tax receipts, an indicator of retail sales, had gone up by $800,000 last year, and echoed Sims statement about a conversation Girtz said he had with a restaurant franchiser who told him Athens was easier to deal with than dozens of other cities where he’d launched new restaurants.
On a question about affordable housing, Girtz suggested creating a fund from Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) dollars, $15 million in five years, to bring down housing costs. He’d also use density bonuses, permitting 45 homes in acreage zoned for 30, on the condition that the additional houses remain affordable.
Knight pointed to the University of Georgia, which owns thousands of acres of untaxed Athens-Clarke land, for part of the solution.
“Let’s go to the University of Georgia and look for payments in lieu of taxes,” he said.
Sims’ answer was jobs.
“What is affordable housing? What you can pay for it?” he asked. “It still comes back to jobs. It’s all about creating the job opportunities for people here.”
Asked about what the mayor and commission might do to raise wages in the area, Knight said “as a local government, our hands are a little tied.”
Girtz said he was proud of having voted in favor of making sure employees at Athens-Clarke County, one of the city’s largest employers, are paid a living wage.
“I have to join with Kelly on that point,” Sims said. “No one comes into (Clarke County government employment) without a living wage.”
Knight and Girtz were critical of Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards’ policy of cooperation with federal immigration authorities by detaining certain jail inmates past their normal release date.
“He’s the sheriff for the people of Athens-Clarke County, not the sheriff of the federal government,” Knight said.
What the sheriff is doing is actually unconstitutional, added Knight.
“It galls me,” he said. “The impact of having a parent taken away from you at 9 years old is not something you recover from.”
Sims, who recently talked with Edwards about the issue, defended the sheriff.
“He says he’s following his constitutional oath of office. That’s what he’s trying to do,” Sims said.
But all three defended the rights of undocumented immigrants living in Athens.
“These people have been here 30 years, and now they’re being kicked out,” Sims said. We’ve got to help them continue to work and become solid citizens of Athens-Clarke County.”
Asked about reducing the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, Knight and Girtz seemed on the same page, saying Athens should follow the lead of cities that have done that — Atlanta and Savannah.
It’s “unacceptable to keep filling our prisons,” and “wasteful,” Knight said.
The local government should “think more broadly” about how law enforcement handles other misdemeanor crimes, Girtz said.
But “in life there are choices,” Sims said. “Most of the people who get caught with this are out in public. You choose to put yourself in harm’s way.”
Knight was also critical of Clarke County schools in answering a question about what local government can do to reduce gun violence. A tour of Clarke Central he took as a member of the school’s Local School Governance Team uncovered broken security cameras. And the school system hasn’t had a police chief in six months, he said.
“It’s atrocious the environment we’re sending our kids to every day,” he said. “We’re not holding our school system accountable. We have vulnerabilities in every corner of our schools.”
Crime has actually dropped dramatically in the past 20 years, Girtz noted. But the community needs to go further to make neighborhoods safer, he said.
“Safe neighborhoods are going to be less violent neighborhoods,” he said.
Sims said more attention needs to be paid to mental health, noting federal funding cuts to mental health programs and the ignored warning signs that have preceded mass murders like the one last month at a Florida high school.
“It’s not the guns, it’s the people firing the guns,” he said. “We’ve got to be more alert, more vigilant to these things.”