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Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz poses for a portrait in the Commission Chamber in City Hall in Athens, Georgia, on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Mayor Girtz sat down with The Red & Black for an interview a few months into his term. (Photo/Rebecca Wright)

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz spoke about recent initiatives of the ACC unified government at a Young Democrats of UGA meeting on Sept. 4.

Girtz gave a presentation explaining the makeup of the county commission with its ten members, as well as what the government is doing to improve Athens’ infrastructure and its clean energy initiatives.

One of his administration’s biggest initiatives is “enhanced connectivity,” ensuring that Athenians can comfortably and safely travel around the county considering that, geographically, it is the “smallest county in the state.”

“It should be easy to get from one place to another safely,” Girtz said. He followed by informing the club about the East Campus Connector Dedication on Sep. 5, which will link the North Oconee River Greenway and UGA’s East Campus. According to Girtz, the connector — intended as a bike and pedestrian bridge — will be the “first pedestrian bridge over the Oconee River in 40 years.”

Moving on to a pressing issues for young progressives, Girtz focused on environmental protection. He noted that in June, the unified government committed to 100% clean, renewable energy use by 2035. The first step in this direction is to move toward solar energy at utility facilities, such as the solar panel array at the Cedar Creek Water Reclamation Facility.

Girtz also detailed a SPLOST 2020 project that will direct nearly $45 million toward affordable housing and revitalization, using areas such as Ponce City Market in Atlanta as a model. When the floor opened up for questions, members pressed the mayor on the issue of gentrification.

In Athens’ unique housing market, students are “bringing dollars from Alpharetta, Roswell [and] Marietta,” and an influx of renters can “crowd out” Athenians living on low wages, Girtz said.

Over the next 11 years, SPLOST funds would go toward developing the infrastructure around housing: water, sidewalks and roads. Girtz said the government would mirror Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ housing plan and incentivize development with the condition that a portion of new units would be reserved for affordable housing.

YDUGA President Matthew Brantley said YDUGA invited Girtz back to speak because of his role as mayor and recent government initiatives such as “free transit and the vocal support of the Latinx community.” In June, ACC approved an expansion of fare-free transit for seniors, people with disabilities, and ACC employees.

On Aug. 20, the commission passed a resolution in support of the “Immigrant, Undocumented, and Latinx Community” in the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Mississippi.

Girtz, who has appeared at YDUGA meetings before, said the more than 140 people who attended the meeting was the best turnout he’s seen so far.

YDUGA members said sitting in on these speaker sessions is the easiest way to inform themselves on what is happening in their local politics, especially from a progressive point of view.

Adhya Chawla, a freshman from Johns Creek, admitted she didn’t even know who was in office until attending Young Dems meetings. Chawla said political awareness is important as it can be forgotten while going through a large change such as attending college.

“This is where we live now,” she said. “So, we should know what’s going on here.”

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