Kelly Girtz: “Vision. Leadership. Results”

All three candidates for mayor of Athens visited Cedar Shoals for an extended interview with News editor Daveon Montgomery and reporter Tristan Lankford. Each of those interviews has been transcribed and posted for voters’ consideration. See the other two interviews with Harry Sims and Richie Knight here on

Can you tell me about your role in the commission?

“I came onto the commission after the 2006 election. We really have three big roles. We set the annual budget. That’s probably the biggest thing we do, and we determine how $200 million of your tax money will be spent every year. We also decide what new ordinances, local laws, are going to be put into place, and then sort of related to the law creation we look at land use so we ask what can be built in which locations and what are the details around that construction activity. I often say that being on the county commission is a little like going back to college. Every year there’s something new I have to learn about water and sewer systems, about traffic management, about health and leisure activity, about economic development, about housing.”

You worked in education before government. Can you tell me more about your experience?

“I still do, the county commissioner is a part time job. I started as a student teacher here at Cedar Shoals High School in 1997-98. After finishing my masters degree, I got a job teaching seventh graders at Coile Middle School. So I taught 7th and 8th graders at Coile for 5 years and also was the homebound teacher there for a few years. If any student was out on disability whether it was a viral infection that was going to keep that at home for six week, or pregnant in some cases, I’d go visit the students a couple of times a week. That position as homebound teacher, probably as great a way as any, gave me the feeling that I really knew what the back streets of Athens were like in every neighborhood. That encouraged me to want me to do what I could do in a deeper way than I could in the classroom to make lives better for the people here in Athens.”

About how many years have you been in politics?

“As an elected official, about 11 years, but really my political life probably goes back to the late 80’s when I was in highschool. During that period, I became interested in questions around human rights, environmental quality, and began doing the stuff that you do at that point: sending postcards to offices in the federal government and elected officials. I really got interested in children’s issues and began advocating for better child care taking opportunities for people and more resources for place like DFCS to make sure kids and families are taken care of. I became interested in social work initially and that sort of bled into becoming interested in public education.”

How long have you lived in Athens?

“Just over 22 years. I moved here to go to grad school and at the time thought maybe I’ll be in Athens for two and a half years, finish my masters, maybe I’ll move to Virginia where I had some friends who’d moved. But, something about this town really stuck with me. By a couple of years of being here, Athens had really sort of sunk its hooks into me and I was just committed to staying in Athens no matter how long it took. Even if that meant staying here bussing tables for another year until a teaching job came up.”

Why do you want to be mayor?

“I want to be mayor because I want to heighten the things that are already good about Athens. We’ve got some fantastic employers in the healthcare field, education, in entrepreneurship, arts.  We’ve got great places to hang out. We’ve got this very strong minded population, and I mean that in the best way. But, there are also a lot of things in Athens that have just been meandering along for decades, generations kind of, without the healing that is needed. I want to draw people together who have good ideas to put people to work, whether they’re people your age who are just about ready to come out of high school, whether their people who are coming out of the University thinking ‘I love Athens and I’d love to stay here if there were jobs’ Or whether it’s people that might have dropped out of high school 20, 30, 40 years ago who have been sort of living on the edges. You know it’s no surprise to anyone when they hear that Athens has this enduring poverty rate of 30% in the general population and 40% in the youth. That’s been true forever. I want us to turn the corner on that. I really want to bring a stronger Athens into being and I realize even in the timeframe of eight years, a potential two term mayoral life, that all the changes that need to happen aren’t going to happen. But I’m ready to lay down the gauntlet to make sure that the changes that we can put in place are put in place so others can pick up the batton and move forward beyond me.”

What makes you different from all of the other candidates?

“I believe that if you look at my life in policy making on the county commision, what you’ll see is I consistently put ideas on the table. I’ve drawn people together around those ideas, I’ve asked for their input, I’ve taken the things that come out of my own mind and my own reading and my own investigation and I’ve made them better through that interaction with people. Then I’ve moved those ideas forward with contingency of people who are allied for those common ends. I also have just a breadth of understanding about really many many aspects of this town. I’ve got this experience knocking on doors, sitting in people’s dining rooms talking about their educational life, their family’s life. I have a real clear eyed view of what the great things are about this town and what the challenges are. I know its creative community. I’ve learned a ton about the business community and what can be done to strengthen it. I have a constant willingness to listen to people inform me about what I need to know more about: whether those are about the big picture direction of the county or the nuts and bolts about how when you roll up to the counter at the planning office just to find out about how to put a fence in your front yard that we can be better agents of making that happen. I think as a package I bring as much as anybody possibly could into the mayoral seat.”

Why do you think people should vote for you?

“I think people should vote for me most of all because people know that I’ll listen to them and I’ll do something with what I hear from them. I’ll pull that into our policy creation, and then I’ll come back and say, ‘how are we doing? Is there more we can do?’ I’m not interested in getting into this just for a title and an office downtown and city hall. I’m interested in really pushing progress formward in this town.”

What is your stance on affordable housing?

“ I think affordable housing should be distributed throughout the community. You shouldn’t have one big chunk of wealth and then one big chunk across the highway or across the river of poverty. That’s not a healthy was to live. It’s not a healthy way for kids to grow up. Kids shouldn’t have to get off the bus at three o’clock in the afternoon and roll over to their apartment building and there’s just nothing but desperate people living there. Putting a model of mixed income housing in place, it takes a lot of conversation. It takes paying attention to some of the nuances and details of getting that done on the ground. You have to make sure that there’s going to be social support for people as they move into a mixed income environment, but we’ve done that here in Athens in Columbia Brookside. We can do it more, and we can do it in an even higher quality because we will have learned lessons from that experience. I think we absolutely need to have a range of housing. We need to have a range of housing by income, and even by age. I met with a whole house full of women in their 60’s and 70’s a couple weeks ago, and they were all saying as retirees we really want to be able to be downtown in an apartment of a condo where we don’t have yard maintenance to do, but where we can walk to get a bite to eat, to get a cup of coffee, walk over to the University to attend the performances over there. So what I really want to see is a more connected community. Connected across bands of age, and race, and income, and physically connected so we can get places. When I think about all the folks I’ve worked with, sometimes I reflect on how there’s kids that live way up Danielsville Road or way out on Beaverdam Road and not only might they be living without a whole lot of money, but you can’t safely get anywhere to just buy a Coke and a Snickers bar. So we need to make sure that you can get safely to places where you live to places where you need to go.”

In the event that you’re elected mayor, what plans or efforts have you put together to make sure that happens with affordable housing?

“There’s a mechanism that Atlanta and a lot of other cities have used that’s called a tax allocation district. And that’s where you say we’ve got this area where there’s just isn’t as much there as we need. Maybe the quality of the housing isn’t what we need, it’s difficult to get around, maybe things are a little bit run down. But, what we can do is rebuild and reinvest in bringing these areas up. I like to do that and you have to target a geographic area, but we can do it downtown, kind of where Bethel Homes is on down to the river. We can do it on Newton Bridge Road in Castlewood and Barber Street. It’s a strong tool that a county can use to draw a not only public money but private investment too.  So I plan to lay out opportunities in background as mayor.”

Athens is a very diverse place and you just mentioned that you met with a group of ladies who would like to be downtown more, so what is your plan to increase public engagement and interactions?

“I want to make some regular times as mayor, and I’m committing to making regular times, when folks can just come in and have Q&A  opportunities in a group and with me individually. I need to make time to hear people because the best ideas that I get don’t just spring fully formed from my own head. There are ideas that I have given that have come from other people, and so in a way I think my strength as a leader is being somewhat of a laboratory. I’ve taken some elements from you, I’ve taken some elements from your neighbor, I have taken some elements from some people across town and make something stronger because we’ve all contributed.”

A big issue in 2017 was the police shootings and because of this, people don’t trust the police which causes a lot of safety concerns. What are your plans address these concerns and to build public safety in Athens?

“In that frame of police-community relations particularly, given what’s been happening nationally in Houston, outside Minneapolis, outside St Louis, and Florida, what I would do is continue to enhance the work that we do around community policing where police officers get out of their cars and have conversations with people and ask how they’re doing and you know provide the tone of being a community asset and not a harbinger of fear.  I think that’s always going to take work in the same way that affordable housing takes layers and years of work, community policing takes layers and years of work and it takes us in the government saying what can be better, how can we respond better, how can we let you know that to we’re an asset and not a threat. Thinking back to being in the classroom when I was teaching 10 or 12 years ago, I had a contingent of students that had a particular officer who they would mention by name and say, ‘I don’t like when so and so comes around because he’s always acting like a badass and he’s always treating us like we’re nothing.’ We don’t need those officers on our force and I feel confident that Scott Freeman, our police chief now, and his predecessor Jack Lumpkin have the same attitude: that we’re not going to hire people who aren’t going to be good ambassadors for the public sector because after all we all work fo you. You are our boss, we’re your employees.”

Recently, The Flagpole just published an article calling you the front runner of the mayoral race. What do you think about that ?

“I appreciate it and I think that’s true because of the hard work I’ve done, because of the connections I’ve made, because of the outreach I’ve done. I’ll say in campaigning terms. I’ve always tried to operate in education or as a commissioner, being prepared, do lots of homework, gather a good team around me. I’ve got a campaign team of about six people who are fabulous at community outreach, public relations, photography, web development, fundraising, and all these kinds of things. I think that’s what put me in the, according to Flagpole, the front runner position.”

Transportation is another big issue in Athens. We have a lot of people in Athens and many of them need public transportation. Many feel the stops are complicated to learn. How would you address these issues and try to fix these problems?

“Athens Transit goes through sort of an ongoing transit development plan process. And they’ve just gone through a wave of this. It identified a few things, kind of exactly what you described: some stops and some routes are overly complex. They sort of meander around and need to be more concise. I think we’re going to be seeing some routes transition in the next couple of years in that way. It also recognized that there are some places that the bus doesn’t go at all where there are a lot of people who need access to the bus. Both the county commision and the voters last year approved a transportation special purpose tax that’s going to fund a bus that’s supposed to go all the way up HIghway 29. It will go past the big new Kroger where Athens Tech is and reach Pinewoods, Country Corners, and the VA clinic that’s on the county line. My hope is that the next big line expansion is one that goes further out Atlanta Highway so it reaches folks at Stonehenge and people who are working at the Caterpillar plant. Now obviously this takes funding. I believe in providing dedicated funding for public transit. I want us to be creative on how we can do this. I would like us to work with our partners at the state to explore whether we can have sort of a one tie annual fee when you renew your vehicle tag down at the tag office. Ultimately that may be a cleaner way of paying for it rather than $1.75 every time you jump on the bus. It may yield greater dividends in terms of public access. I think the future of transit looks good but we have to make that true.”

Athens is pretty much run on taxes, a huge part of its budget is based on taxes. But, there are a lot of resources in Athens that are not taxable, like UGA. How would you increase our budget in Athens?

“To do that, you would have to increase the tax base, so I talked about this tax allocation district model where you’re encouraging people to come in because you’re saying we’re going to reinvest in an area. That encourages people to place their businesses in Athens, and it also encourages those people to live in Athens because people like to live close to where they work. I’ve done a survey of residential development opportunity in town, and we’ve got enough home sites for 5,000 new homes. Many of those pretty close to where employment happens. So I think working in hand with the development community we can make those redevelopments and new developments happen and increase the tax base. These things tend to kind of fold in upon them selves, so when the ares gets the reputation of being hot, other people are attracted here. I think there will be a spin-off affect. You mentioned the University of Georgia. I’ve been in conversations with some people at the University and they’ve been in some internal conversations to talk about how some of that research and development that’s happening in offices and in laboratories on campus can jump of campus to become private business development. And I think that we need to take a much stronger hand in doing that in the way that Georgia Tech has done that and the way that other universities have done it.”

Athens has a large youth population. With over 3,000 highschool students, many of them want jobs and experiences to put on applications. There are also a lot of businesses in Athens. How would you try to connect students and businesses so that we can get the experiences we need and want?

“There is a program already underway, you may know about the Great Promise Partnership. It connects students directly to jobs, provides some guidance and oversight as students are working in those jobs, so that they’ve got a hand to hang on to them who can walk them into that early career experience. I’ve put money in the county’s own budget that was approved by the full commission to have that program happen in the county. We’ve got about half a dozen young people who are working in county departments who are doing real work. They’re doing work that needs to be done, finance on spreadsheets, taking care of little kids over at leisure services, and they’re doing building maintenance. I want to see that expand not only in the Athens-Clarke County government but throughout private businesses throughout the community. Part of the benefit that you get is that you figure out some of those workplace skills like showing up on time or relating to people well even when you might be mad at them.

And then you also learn some practical experience in many of those things I mentioned. You also meet some people, people in economics and job developments, so rather than just knowing your family, you know people who are in the business industry. The county is going to run another tax referendum in about a year and a half. There are some programs on that that I’d like to see that as a specific component of them bringing youth development efforts. For example, there are a lot of places where in the community there can be great beautification efforts: tree and shrub planting. There are horticulture skills that go into knowing what trees to plant in what place and how to take care of them. If we’re going to devote hundred of thousands or millions of dollars to plant things, we can have youth employees be a part of the people that do that work.

Very broadly, Athens is a relatively small community. Geographically, we are the smallest county in the state, and I think every populated segment of the county deserves to be able to get to places conveniently and safely. I want that to be true of the Eastside just as much as the rest of town. You should be able to get from Southeast Clarke Park to Satterfield Park to the movie theatre easily. Whether you’re riding a bike, whether your jogging, whether your pushing a stroller. You should also have amenities like a library. Where I grew up in North Virginia, there was a town with almost three times the population of Athens but part of a big metro area. There were two different libraries within walking distance of my house, and there were seven or eight libraries distributed around the city. I think that a much better model just for learning, for society, for opportunity, so I’ve been in some conversations with people at the Athens Regional Library about what an Eastside location would look like, where that might be, whether that would be at Southeast Clarke Park, whether that would be at one of the school district campuses like the campus where Hilsman is going to be renovated, or the campus where the old Gaines School was. I’d love to see that be apart of the SPLOST package, or the tax package that’s going to be in front of voters probably in November 2019.”

Downtown is mainly for college students. How would you bring in more businesses that are going to help the entire community? More family friendly businesses, and more businesses that are going to bring in jobs?

“So I mentioned this idea about some redevelopment zones and it’s interesting. Right downtown there are a fair number of vacant or really underutilized parcels. If you go down College Avenue, I think there is a lot of opportunity for redevelopment and reinvestment in the Bethel Homes area, the authority area next to it, the areas around the council on aging. You go just under the railroad tracks and there are a couple vacant parcels on the left and on the right. I think we need to combine this in our minds into an area that could be an area for more regular folks, not just for college kids to live, more affordable housing, some senior housing, some retail opportunity, some office based business development too, so that downtown becomes a more vibrant and more diverse place than it is now. I also want to work with our partners in the federal government because they got that huge parking lot that’s behind the federal building. I would love to work with them to put the folks who work in the federal building into one of our decks, whether its an old one or we build one, and have that become our sort of a downtown, central park, green space where you could hang out, have concerts, have a fountain, where you could do the family friendly stuff.”