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Mayoral candidate forums bring discussions on budget priorities, preservation, and much more

Mayoral candidates at the Historic Athens Candidate Forum on April 11, 2022.
Athens Politics Nerd
Mayoral candidates at the Historic Athens Candidate Forum on April 11, 2022.

It’s a mixed bag of candidates running for Athens-Clarke County Mayor – that’s been made clear at two mayoral forums, hosted by local organizations this past week.

The first, hosted by Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement at the county library last Friday, saw incumbent Mayor Kelly Girtz and candidates Pearl Hall, Mykeisha Ross and Bennie Coleman, III discuss their track record on community affairs. Absent from the forum were Mara Zúñiga and Fred Moorman. The Historic Athens Forum on Monday saw Moorman attend, while Zúñiga was still missing. Commission and Board of Education candidates also attended.

At AADM’s forum, attending candidates answered questions about affordable housing, budget priorities and community outreach.

Girtz said he would continue work on existing programs that target infrastructure and youth development if re-elected — those items seem to be priorities of his on next year’s budget, which is being drafted.

While Girtz has years of experience on the Mayor and Commission, Coleman highlighted his candidacy from a different angle.

“I’m green, so you have the opportunity to mold me in a good way,” Coleman said, specifically about budget priorities.

Ross, a nonprofit founder, said she wants to “clean up” current county leadership for its failure to address equity issues. When asked about the county budget, she alluded to firing the city manager, Blaine Williams.

“I don’t know if he has the vision the community wants,” Ross said. “So having someone who actually has that vision for the community, that’s how you know where to distribute the money to.”

Ross’s proposals at the Historic Athens forum, which focused on existing and future historic preservation policy, were more moderate. She said she would fund more public art projects to encourage engagement with historic properties, and wants more education on local history for Athens’ minority youth.

“I think it’s our responsibility to be able to teach the kids about the history so they can know what they’re saving,” Ross said.

At Historic Athens’ forum, all the candidates could agree on the importance of historic preservation, though ideas for policy adjustments differed. Moorman, a property owner of several buildings, had a lot to say about lowering property taxes. Coleman and Hall were vehemently opposed to short and long-term rentals in historic neighborhoods, saying they decimate communities’ way of life.

Both lifelong residents, Coleman and Hall seem to favor ideas that could directly benefit older, poorer residents of Athens, specifically when asked about the budget and housing issues at AADM’s forum. Coleman said he’d like to see manufactured houses built quickly to help solve the affordable housing crisis. Hall proposed a special fund for people who can’t afford basic needs.

“Let’s set aside a budget that would help those whose rent is due, that can’t be paid,” Hall said. “Let’s set aside a budget for those that need food.”

Some of the proposals made by candidates at the AADM forum don’t fall under mayoral jurisdiction and seemed to focus instead on the operations of the Clarke County School District. Coleman said he’d like to overhaul the board of education, while Ross stated she’d make raising teacher salaries a priority. CCSD acts as an independent body separate from the Athens-Clarke County Government.

Though opportunities for mayoral debate are far from over, one candidate was absent from both forums — Mara Zúñiga. She was quoted as having a scheduling conflict at AADM’s gathering. The Athens Area Chamber of Commerce ishosting a forum at Piedmont Athens Regional on April 18, and The Red & Black will host one on May 2 at Ciné.

The local election, state and federal primary is on May 24.