NeSmith at commission

Jerry NeSmith, commissioner of district 6, speaks on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, at City Hall in Athens, Georgia. NeSmith was one of three commissioners physically present at its March 17 agenda-setting session. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

Athens-Clarke County’s City Hall Chamber was largely empty on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day for the ACC Mayor and Commission’s agenda-setting session.

On Monday, the Mayor and Commission adopted an ordinance declaring a local emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restricting public gatherings to fewer than 10 people

No members of the public were visible in the meeting’s livestream. Outside of Mayor Kelly Girtz and a few local government employees, only three of the ten commissioners filled the room — District 1’s Patrick Davenport, District 5’s Tim Denson and District 6’s Jerry NeSmith.

The most notable things the gathered officials discussed were U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants, adding surveillance cameras in Nellie B Community and contracting Athens prison labor to the state government.

District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker wrote in her proposal, which Girtz read aloud, to amend the FY21 Community Development Block Grant Annual Action Plan to move money to partially fund community projects on the East Side.

The CDBG is a HUD program through which the department allocates federal funds to local projects. Local governments looking to receive CDBG funds are required to submit plans to HUD.

Parker proposed taking the $60,000 currently allocated to fund Goodwill of North Georgia’s “GoodBIZ” business training program and dividing the money to partially fund the renovation of basketball courts at the East Athens Community Center and the East Athens Development Corporation’s “Bridging the Gap” program, a job-coaching and employment assistance program for East Side residents.

While saying Goodwill’s efforts to train and coach low-income entrepreneurs and existing business owners are “commendable,” Parker said in her statement that Goodwill is more likely to find alternative funds for their programs than a local non-profit like the EADC.

“As CDBG funding directly affects my district, I feel uniquely positioned to speak to the needs and the expertise in the community,” Parker wrote. “We frequently speak about wanting to rebuild EADC’s capacity and more broadly the importance of supporting grassroots community supports efforts, and I think it’s essential we put material supports behind these good intentions.”

Parker said recreational facilities are important for the community’s well-being.

The Mayor and Commissioners discussed a proposal for Georgia Power to install and maintain wireless security cameras, for a fixed monthly fee, on its utility poles within the Nellie B Community — an affordable housing community— for the ACC Police Department’s public safety camera system.

The cameras would not be monitored all the time but the cameras will record images at all times, the proposal said. Additionally, the proposal said the cameras would act to deter criminal activity and provide increased safety.

Denson questioned why the Nellie B Community was chosen specifically — which the proposal did not answer — and raised concerns over residents’ privacy. Denson proposed notifying residents about the cameras, and NeSmith concurred.

“If they were gonna all of a sudden put up police cameras on the light pole in front of our house ... I would like to know,” Denson said. “This is people’s homes. I know my privacy’s important to me, and I think everyone else’s is, and I think we should honor that for all of our residents.”

The commissioners also discussed the proposal between the ACC government and the Georgia Department of Transportation to clean GDOT-owned corridors using inmate labor.

In the proposal, GDOT would reimburse the ACC government for vehicle insurance, tools, equipment and the salary of one correctional officer alongside other expenditures as the ACC government provides offenders from its Correctional Institution to clean the GDOT-owned buildings, equipment and right-of-ways in ACC. Compensation for inmate labor is not a listed expenditure in the proposal.

“It seems like a lot of trash is coming off trucks. It’s not just litter being thrown from cars. It tends to be bags of litter, sometimes multiple bags of litter,” NeSmith said. “But to be able to get that cleaned up in a timely fashion I think would be a big service to the community.”

Denson said the use of unpaid labor from prison inmates does not align with the county’s commitment to criminal justice reform.

District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link wrote in her thoughts, which Girtz read aloud, that she has “ongoing concerns” with inmate labor and wants to inquire further on ways to compensate inmates for their labor.

The Mayor and Commission will hold an “emergency declaration update” on Thursday, Girtz said. Residents looking to leave comments at the upcoming session can do so on the comment form on the county government’s website.

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