Facebook users tuned in at 7 p.m. on March 29 to watch the first live-stream of mayoral debates between candidates Harry Sims, Richie Knight and Kelly Girtz.
Andrew Levy, president of DT Productions, moderated the candidate debate alongside Lisee Pullara, editor in chief of The Red & Black and Blake Aued, news editor of Flagpole.
Before questions began, each candidate was given 90 seconds to introduce themselves and address their campaign platforms.
Both Girtz and Sims discussed how much time they’ve spent in Athens and how that time will allow them a leg-up on understanding what the community needs in order to improve.
“I’ve come to see every corner of Athens — the good, the bad and the ugly,” Girtz said. “So when I talk tonight about opportunities for Athens, I’ll be talking about them in tangible terms because they aren’t things that I’ve read about, not things I believe in theory, they’re things I believe can improve dramatically and improve for everybody in this community.”
Girtz said he has owned a home in Athens for two decades, while also spending that time working in public education as a principal and regional direct for student services before becoming the current district 9 commissioner.
Similarly, Sims worked as a school teacher in Athens for 30 years, a profession of which he referred to as his “calling.” Sims also worked in the unified government for 25 years and as a city councilman for two years before becoming the district 2 commissioner. Sims resigned from his position as commissioner to run for mayor.
“I am running because this is my home. There’s no place in the world I’d rather live than Athens, Georgia.”
- Harry Sims, mayoral candidate
“I am running because this is my home,” Sims said. “There’s no place in the world I’d rather live than Athens, Georgia.”
Knight, on the other hand, has only been in the Athens community for less than ten years, but said that his time has been well-spent as a business owner and community advocate.
“I just want to stick to my bold, new creative ideas about how I want to see Athens move forward,” Knight said. “I’m really excited about thinking how Athens could reach its potential.”
Topics discussed throughout the debate fell under multiple categories, including housing, public safety, education and community.
Moderators began by asking about the lack of single-family homes in Athens. When asked whether the candidates would allow more development in the areas surrounding the city or higher density development within the city limits, each replied with different reasonings behind their choice.
Girtz said he has seen the studies that note how much “buildable land” we have within the city where single-family homes could be built, which is why he supports higher density development in Athens.
“I’ve come to see every corner of Athens — the good, the bad and the ugly.”
- Kelly Girtz, mayoral candidate
Sims, on the other hand, said he didn’t want to take green belt expansion off the table. However, if that expansion were to take place, Sims said it is important to consider the homes that are already there when building more housing.
Knight agreed with Sims’ statements by noting that he thinks it’s important to have affordable housing in every neighborhood of Athens.
“The key to that ... is the infrastructure in place to support it,” Knight said. “There’s way too many parts of our county where we’ve got no public sewage and no public water. It’s about near impossible to attract developers until we do that.”
Other questions asked involved education, poverty and well-paying jobs, the latter of which was a large point of Sims’ campaign.
When answering a question about the lack of high-paying jobs in Athens, Sims answered by explaining that the economic development authority should be looking for “moderate” businesses that could come to Athens, similar to how Caterpillar brought many jobs to Athens when they came to the community in 2012.
Sims also noted the importance of education when trying to correct the high rate of poverty within the community.
Knight explained that the government has the power to incentivize employers with well-paying jobs to come to Athens and employ local citizens. Girtz also said incentivizing could be profitable if it meant working with the University of Georgia to bring technologies, businesses and employment to the surrounding community, rather than to somewhere outside of Athens.
“I’m really excited about thinking how Athens could reach its potential.”
- Richie Knight, mayoral candidate
One question, directed toward Knight, asked how he would plan to get the university to pay the local government rather than property taxes, an idea that has been central to his campaign.
Knight said the university constitutes as one of the largest employers of the community, yet they pay the lowest wages.
“We as a local government need these resources and we can’t look to taxpayers constantly, every time we think about doing something different,” Knight said.
Since the debate was streamed live on Facebook, viewers were able to comment their questions, which were asked toward the end of the debate. One viewer’s question asked what the candidates would do to protect the arts in Athens.
“What we need to do to sustain that [music] scene is make sure we’ve got the infrastructure around it,” Girtz replied.
Sims, half-jokingly, started his reply by saying he is a recording artist himself.
“It’s an important part of our community,” Sims said. “They’ve got something to say, we just need to be listening more.”
Knight said though he’s never cut a record, he sees music as a business that drives our community.
Though this was the first live-stream debate that DT Productions has hosted for mayoral candidates this season, several other debates are still scheduled to happen between now and May. Votes can be cast for one of the three mayoral candidates at voting polls throughout Athens on May 22.