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County commissioners listen to the concerns of Athens citizens at the Athens Mayor and Commission meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Photo/Jason Born)

The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission heard and discussed presentations on five agenda items over a span of four hours at its Oct. 8 work session at City Hall.

Of the five items, three were discussed extensively — presentations on the anti-poverty “prosperity package,” election updates and a pilot program for “shareable dockless mobility devices,” such as electric scooters.

The presentations from the work session were considerations for future agenda items. The Commission will meet again on Oct. 15 for an agenda setting session.

Prosperity Package

On June 4 the Mayor and Commission approved a $4 million “prosperity package” proposed by District 9 Commissioner Ovita Thornton and District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby to fight poverty in Athens-Clarke County. The package was approved for the 2020 fiscal year budget.

The Mayor and Commission has since highlighted target areas for the program. Those targets include health, community engagement, education and workforce development.

One issue highlighted was the implementation of the “neighborhood leaders” element of the package. This program would include 16 neighborhood leader positions, one in each of the 16 elementary school zones in ACC.

The presentation to commissioners suggested a “phased implementation” that called for the hiring of two neighborhood leaders in the first phase, scheduled for completion in May 2020, in time for the next school year.

Many commissioners expressed concern with this suggestion, saying it did not move with the urgency required to address poverty.

“This is foot dragging,” District 8 Commissioner Andy Herod said. “We need to get moving on this. We‘re not going to fix everything in a year, this is a multi-year project and we can put more money in this next year.”

Herod also said there are “low hanging fruit” in opportunities for people in the community to sign up for programs receiving federal and state benefits they are entitled to. Getting all 16 neighborhood leaders hired to help in this could “immediately improve people’s lives,” Herod said.

Thornton expressed concerns during the presentation about following a similar path as previous programs that fell short.

“We can create our own jobs and set up a model,” Thornton said. “I’m not looking for another social service project. I’m not looking for a handout to nobody. We need to help people move up and advance up and that means changing the culture of what we do.”

The Commission increased the budget on the agenda item to allow for more neighborhood leaders to be hired before the start of the 2020-2021 school year. The suggested rollout with two leaders will act as the minimum, while allowing for more hires to be made. The suggestion was made by Hamby and received support from other commissioners.

Motorized Vehicles

In contrast with the urgency of the prosperity package, Commissioners expressed a willingness to take the development of a possible pilot plan on “shareable dockless mobility devices” — which include electric scooters — at a slower pace.

The commission extended a moratorium banning the devices until June 4, 2020 at its Oct. 1 voting meeting. The purpose of the extension was to allow more time to consider and implement details of a pilot plan. Tuesday’s meeting was the first presentation of the plan to the entire commission.

“We want to know if this is worth moving forward and what it would look like to move forward,” said District 4 Commissioner Allison Wright.

Wright and District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards both said constituents have questioned why the Commission would want the scooters back in ACC. District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson, later in the discussion, asked if it was considered in the committee to not permit these devices.

“If we were to have voted I’m not sure if it would have come out of committee,” Wright said. Wright also restated the purpose of presenting the program was to inform the community the commission was talking about the issue again.

The pilot plan, which has been discussed in the Legislative Review Committee chaired by Wright, would last for 12 months and have two vendor companies supplying vehicles, according to recommendations presented Tuesday night.

The proposal addressed various concerns including safety, parking, equity and sustainability. Issues such as access to lower income communities and affordability were addressed by commissioners. Denson questioned if the scooters or other devices were actually as sustainable as marketed.

“I worry that we are undermining what we are trying to prioritize with our transit system,” Denson said. “This wasn't replacing cars. It’s replacing people taking bus rides or walking.”

Denson also said bus rides and walking are more environmentally safe and personally safe than using electric scooters.

Trestle Bridge and Elections Update

Tuesday’s presentation to the Commission proposed a preliminary design for the 2018 Transportation Special-Purpose Local-Options Sales Tax-funded bridge connecting the Firefly Trail through Dudley Park.

The design was an “evolution” of a prior design proposal that focused on reusing parts of the longstanding R.E.M. “Murmur” trestle while creating extensions on both ends of the connection.

After the preliminary design proposal, the next step for the Commission would be approval of the plan at a future voting meeting.

Charlotte Sosebee, elections and voter registration director, presented the Commission with an overview of how the 2018 midterms were run by the Board of Elections. Sosebee said the Board went above the State’s minimum requirements for voting machines. The state law requires 1 voting machine for every 500 electors.

Also highlighted in Sosebee’s presentation was the creation of a new early voting location in East Athens at the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government Tennis Courts.

District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker asked Sosebee why there was not an early voting location in East Athens for the 2018 midterm election. Sosebee said it was due to a lack of laptops and employees needed to properly run the location.

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