Athens News Matters: ACC District 7 Commissioner Discusses Recent Government Actions
Between the creation of an eviction prevention program and conversations around achieving green energy in local government, it's been a busy month for the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission.
This transcript has been edited for clarity
Commissioner Edwards welcome.
Thanks Chris, glad to be with you again.
The Commission voted this week to move forward with an eviction prevention program that's been in the works since May of this year. Could you give us some background on the program and where it stands now?
Basically what it hopes to accomplish is to create an alternative court-type process for evictions here in Athens.
Sure, so this program is modeled after a project started in Gwinnett County and other places nationwide, and basically what it hopes to accomplish is to create an alternative court-type process for evictions here in Athens, where you would have a third party working to negotiate settlements between landlords and tenants under threat of eviction to try to mediate some sort of settlement to keep people in their homes.
[County] staff actually recommended that the Mayor and Commission deny the bid from the Athenian First Development Corporation, citing concerns about the nonprofit's lack of organization experience. Could you tell me a little bit about the conversation and the reasoning behind that decision?
Right, so the request for proposals went out earlier this year and it had a very tight time window to judge responsive bidders because it was the desire of the Commission to act quickly due to the pending expiration of the [federal] eviction moratorium. So because of that tight time window, and perhaps other factors, we only received one responsive bid for this program to manage it.
And so staff felt somewhat uneasy moving forward since we only got one response, that's sort of atypical with government, and so staff wanted to recommend that we sort of re-tweak the request for proposals to try to expand the interest among the nonprofit community to possibly get some more responses to better judge who might be the best provider.
Time is of the essence to provide some relief for our residents currently facing eviction.
But the Commission on Tuesday decided that time is of the essence to provide some relief for our residents currently facing eviction and looking at the qualifications of the individuals who comprise this non-profit, a degree of confidence was felt by commissioners that they were ready to move forward and award this contract.
But we did put some stipulations in, where we've directed staff to negotiate the budget and the scope of this project with this one responsive bidder and [those] budget and scope documents will come back to the commission for our approval in early November or mid-November. So even though we're only going with one responsive bidder, we've put more checks in place where we're supervising the process to be sure that everything is moving ahead on how we'd like to see it.
Well, earlier this month, the Commission also talked about their plans to reach 100% sustainable energy for the local government by 2035 and for the entire community by 2050. You also heard from the project manager from Southface, a nonprofit out of Atlanta that focuses on sustainability, about an action plan for achieving those goals. Can you tell us a little bit about what the plan looks like so far and the conversations the Commission has had about getting to this?
We're moving towards that goal and doing our part here in Northeast Georgia to fight the deleterious effects of climate change.
Well, the conversations on the commission have really centered around taking every opportunity that we have, especially when building new buildings and renovating old buildings, to push for renewable energy production.
Whether it means super-efficient HVAC systems, installing solar panels on rooftops, ensuring that there's adequate electric vehicle charging infrastructure included.
I think it's one aspect of this commission is very strong to ensure that we're moving towards that goal and doing our part here in Northeast Georgia to fight the deleterious effects of climate change and to really try and be a leader of governments here in Northeast Georgia to show a pathway forward.
So we're building a lot of new buildings in the next few years with this SPLOST project that we just passed - the Classic Center Arena, the Judicial Center, we’re going to be renovating the old courthouse - so at every aspect of that construction we have a strong majority of commissioners committed to ensure that we move towards this goal of renewable energy in Athens.
Well, finally, the mayor and Commission has been inching towards the creation of a civilian oversight authority for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department for quite some time. In September, after over a year of input and planning, yourself and other members of the commission's Government Operations Committee approved a draft ordinance that spells out the oversight board's creation. Could you tell us a little bit about what's in this draft ordinance, and can we expect this to be an agenda item for November's commission meeting?
I haven't heard from one person who's in favor of it.
This will be on the agenda for November, the creation of a public safety oversight board.
Importantly, the first step of this board will be crafting a recommendation for their duties and their authority, particularly when it comes to the creation of any sort of auditor/monitor role within this organization.
Also, the public safety oversight board will have ex-officio members from the Sheriff's office, from the police department, from the corrections office, and I think probably from the probation office. I think we added that in at the last meeting.
Chris, this is interesting now - the initial impetus for this board came, you know, a year, two years ago, there was pretty broad public input pushing for its creation. And again, it's another situation where this proposal has been crafted. It's now made its way through the Government Operations Committee, but again, I haven't heard from one person who's in favor of it.
And what's odd to me too, is that some of the folks who were at first really pushing for a civilian oversight board - they've been attacking some aspects of what's been created over time, and so we have that on one side and then we have on the other side a multitude of community members who have spoken against the creation of this authority because they view it as an attack on the police and [an] attack on the police chief’s authority.
You know, our police are severely understaffed. You know the emotional toll that that's been taken on them through the pandemic and just through the work that they have to do every day. I know that there [are] many of our citizens who are very sensitive to the concerns of supporting the police and being, you know, as a commissioner, a good employer, trying to create a supportive environment for our employees- the police are our employees.
This oversight board has been perceived by many in the community as the wrong direction. So, you know it's a tough position, Chris, where you've got folks who once supported this creation attacking you, and folks who are against it attacking it.
So I guess at the end of the day, you know, why pass it? You know- why would I do this? I mean, I swear an oath to represent my constituents and do what I think is right. And if we come forward with a policy that seems like it could help and other cities do this, and this is kind of what we wanted two years ago.
But now I'm hearing from nobody who supports it, so Chris, I wouldn't be surprised at this if this policy either goes down on November - gets voted down - or possibly tabled to some indefinite time until we hear from folks who actually want this to be done.
Russell Edwards is the Athens Clarke County Commissioner for District 7 and Athens Mayor Pro Tem. Thanks for stopping by today.
Glad to be with you Chris.