A turning point in Jerry NeSmith’s interest in public service occurred when he joined an Atlanta neighborhood coalition in 1978 to fight the proposed Presidential Parkway, a four-lane roadway designed to split through intown parks and neighborhoods.
Known as CAUTION, or Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares in Older Neighborhoods, the coalition organized litigation, lobbying and fundraising to halt the road project. In 1991, after years of renegotiation and mediated agreements, they won.
It was the ability to have a finger on the pulse of community issues that led him to pursue further roles in public service, NeSmith, the current District 6 Commissioner, said.
“And, quite frankly, it was fun,” NeSmith said.
Serving in the role for two terms, NeSmith announced his reelection campaign for the District 6 seat in February. Though he ran unopposed during his 2016 campaign, NeSmith is challenged by Athens for Everyone founding member and community activist Jesse Houle.
NeSmith has held a number of leadership titles in the Athens community, both in community service-oriented and professional capacities. He served as a member of the ACC Planning Commission, the Advantage Behavioral Health Systems Board of Directors and as treasurer and elder of the Oconee Presbyterian Church. NeSmith was also the founding director of the Athens Farmers Market, which he considers the most rewarding role he’s held.
NeSmith moved to Athens from Atlanta in 1997, where previously he served as a member of CAUTION from 1978 to 1985. While working with CAUTION, NeSmith also served as the vice president of the Atlanta League of Neighborhoods and the president of the Morningside Lenox Park Association.
NeSmith’s reasons behind running for a third term are straightforward: he finds the work with community members and other commissioners fulfilling, and he’s “not ready to stop now.”
A central part of NeSmith’s vision for District 6 is furthering economic development, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before commissioners can address larger issues within their districts, the county will have to get through the economic fallout from the pandemic, NeSmith said.
NeSmith also aims to improve bus routes, develop connecting sidewalks along Mitchell Bridge Road and Atlanta Highway and, on a larger scale, create a central public transit hub at the Georgia Square Mall. NeSmith also supports the expansion of enforceable anti-discrimination laws in the county, which currently only address admission to local bars.
In addition to the gratification of solving community problems, NeSmith finds one of the most rewarding parts of serving as a county commissioner is learning from other commissioners with opposing or slightly different stances on issues. It’s a job that requires you to think on your feet, NeSmith said.
‘Making things happen’
Though she lived in Atlanta at the time, musician Caroline Aiken first noticed NeSmith after she began playing at the Bishop Park farmers market location around 10 years ago.
When Aiken moved to District 6 during NeSmith’s first term, major safety issues arose in her neighborhood, including the lack of signage to indicate the one-way roads in her neighborhood. NeSmith swooped in to help without the neighborhood having to ask over and over again, Aiken said.
“I really think Jerry has history in making things happen,” Aiken said.
In support of NeSmith’s campaign, Aiken and NeSmith’s son Jason NeSmith wrote and recorded a short theme song for the commissioner. Pulling inspiration from Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Aiken aimed to create something singsongy that captured NeSmith’s background. What resulted was a brief, catchy jingle with a succinct hook — “Re-elect Jerry NeSmith / For District 6.”
In the years that Aiken has lived in NeSmith’s district, she has found the commissioner acts purely in the interest of his community rather than for himself. Aiken believes this is the main responsibility of a public servant.
“People need to lead from the top down with this kind of community consciousness,” Aiken said. “To me, I think that he’s got such a long history of doing that, and you would not know that. He’s not flashy — he doesn’t seek the spotlight. He’s just hoping to have another chance to give westside Athens some love and support.”
Staying in touch
The pandemic has changed NeSmith’s approach to campaigning, though not drastically. Where he once knocked on doors and distributed yard signs, he is now keeping in contact with around 800 constituents through a nightly coronavirus update email list, which aggregates and consolidates information from county and nonprofit partners “not generally available,” NeSmith said.
It is difficult for the commission to predict who will survive the pandemic, NeSmith said, nor how long it will take before people feel safe and they can stop encouraging people to stay home. In the meantime, NeSmith hopes his continued work with District 6 can ease the community’s conscience.
“I think that my experience and my skills and my spirit are needed now, even more now because of the results of the pandemic and the economic recovery we’re going to have to go through,” NeSmith said. “And, well, I enjoy the work.”