Commissioners pass marijuana ordinance, abortion rights resolution
With controversial votes concerning marijuana regulation, reproductive rights, and changes to Prince Avenue, Tuesday’s five and half hour session of the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission was a marathon, beginning with nearly two hours of public comment.
After the public comment period, commissioners got to work on a lengthy list of nearly forty agenda items, not all of which were controversial, including the purchase of four hybrid police SUVs. District 6 Commissioner Jesse Houle opposed the move, expressing their concern that SUVs were unsafe for bicyclists and pedestrians, due to their size.
"Larger vehicles moving at higher speeds have a much higher likelihood of fatalities for anyone they hit - in another vehicle, as a pedestrian, as a cyclist" they said.
Commissioner Melissa Link supported the purchase but agreed with Houle in principle.
"We have had multiple collisions with pedestrians and other vehicles in our police force, some of which did result in injury, that this government had to pay out for," Link said.
County Manager Blaine Williams noted that the Ford Interceptor SUV was the only hybrid option on the market.
Three-laning of Prince Avenue moves ahead
Commissioners turned later to a more vexing problem – traffic calming on Prince Avenue, and a pilot program that would temporarily turn Prince into a three-lane road starting shortly after Milledge Avenue and running to Pulaski Street. Dedicated and protected bike lanes would also be added.
"People are jumping for joy over this proposal," Link said. And of course, we're going to get the complaints from drivers who fear that they have to go slower, but that's the freaking point."
District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards spoke in favor of the protected bike lanes.
"Without protection, we won't see children, we won't see commuters using bicycle lanes," Edwards said. "The bike is the answer and we need to be putting down these [protections] on every single bike lane that we possibly can, because a stripe of paint on a road is not a bike lane."
Commissioners would re-evaluate the pilot program after 60 days, and any permanent changes to Prince Avenue would require another vote of the Mayor and Commission.
The pilot program passed the commission unanimously.
Revised marijuana ordinance passes
Commissioners also turned their attention to an ordinance that moves towards decriminalizing marijuana possession. While the original version of the plan established a fine of just one dollar for possession of less than an ounce, state law dictates that the minimum fine has to be $35.00.
District 8’s Carol Myers supported the proposal, telling commissioners, "Illegal drug use, when it is a problem, is a public health issue and not a criminal issue unless it harms others."
District 5’s Tim Denson said the ordinance was a long time coming.
"I appreciate the folks coming out here tonight, but I remember sitting on that side of it a good ten years ago and people coming out and organizing around this trying to get a parallel ordinance very similar to this happening," Denson said.
Commissioners passed the marijuana ordinance by a vote of 8 – 1, with District 9 Commissioner Ovita Thornton opposed.
Reproductive rights resolution passes unanimously
A resolution addressing the issue of reproductive rights has been in the works for several weeks, and commissioners saw a final version on Tuesday night. While the local government's hands are mostly tied by state laws, the final version of that resolution affirms the commission’s commitment to abortion care.
It also proscribes the use of most local government money to investigate or prosecute alleged abortions and prohibits local government agencies from accepting grant money which would go to prosecute potential abortion cases.
District 9’s Thornton supported the resolution.
"God gives us choice," Thornton said. "That's one thing God gives all of us is choice. And that's what this reversal [of Roe v Wade] does - it takes choice away."
The resolution passed unanimously.
Two controversial zoning requests postponed
Towards the end of the marathon session, commissioners opted to postpone votes on two hotly-discussed zoning items – a proposed development of 271 townhomes on a 65 acre parcel on Olympic Drive and a request from Phi Kappa Tau fraternity to temporarily turn an office building into housing for fraternity members for one year.