Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz ordered the county attorney’s office to begin investigating removal procedures for the Confederate monument at the intersection of Broad Street and College Avenue in a livestreamed commission work session Tuesday.
The Soldiers’ Monument is a stone obelisk-like monument that sits near the University of Georgia’s Arch. It was moved to Broad Street from its original location on College Avenue near City Hall in 1872 and bears the names of Confederate soldiers from Athens.
Community conversations about the monument’s removal have been happening for years. Girtz said he was prompted to begin the removal by Sunday’s protest against police brutality.
Several commissioners voiced their support for the removal of the monument and praised Sunday’s peaceful protest. District 8 Commissioner Andy Herod called the monument a “danger to public health” and said he was sure it would be pushed over, leading to severe injuries if someone was caught under it.
“I want a crane out there tomorrow or the next day, just like they did in Birmingham yesterday, for the protection and safety of that monument, for the protection and safety of this community,” District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards said. “I want to see that monument taken down.”
Commissioners spoke about a lack of transparency around the tear-gassing that occurred at the end of the protest. District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link called for more information about the actions of the ACC Police Department and National Guard during the protest.
District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker was part of the group who organized the protest. During the meeting, she said she stood with the nonviolent protesters that were tear-gassed and asked her fellow commissioners to speak up about racism in the U.S. and in Athens.
Parker also called for a transition plan that would convert 50% of ACCPD armed officer positions to social work positions, mental health professionals and justice counselors over the next 10 years.
District 10 Commissioner Ovita Thornton said she was very proud of the rally, but also said she was sick of people coming into Athens and saying that black lives matter, while not reaching out to the black community.
“Help black people up, not be trying to drag us along like y’all are saving us,” Thornton said. “Start at home. Clean your own house up first.”
She also urged commissioners to fix issues of racism in their own local government.
“Do we have racism on this board, with this commission? Start cleaning up our own house first,” Thornton said. “The blind can’t lead the blind, unless you have another agenda.”
The commission also discussed and approved items on the consent agenda. The commission approved nearly $74,000 to cover Board of Election expenses from implementing the state’s new voting system. The payment comes from the fiscal year 2020 general operating contingency fund and covers extra voting expenses caused by the pandemic, including absentee ballot postage.
A resolution that urges all ACC residents, employees, businesses and visitors to wear a face mask was approved during the meeting. Girtz said the county purchased 50,000 masks using federal money. The masks will be distributed in high-density public areas, ACC Transit buses, the courthouse and in other public facilities, Girtz said.
The commission approved a contract between the government and the Athens Housing Authority for Bethel Midtown Village to become part of the North Downtown Athens Development Project.
The commission also accepted the amended Athens Downtown Master Plan 2030. The plan is a “blueprint for building on the existing assets of downtown Athens to create a walkable, sustainable, and vibrant city center by 2030,” according to an ACC document.
Link said the downtown area has changed since the plan was drafted in 2012, citing new apartment complexes and the proposed west downtown historic district. She said she wants the Downtown Master Plan Implementation Committee, which was appointed by Mayor Nancy Denson in 2015, to meet and revise the plan based on how the city has changed.
An ordinance that allows the government to exercise “police power” to use money to pay for homeless, impoverished or “distressed” citizens was approved by the commission.
“Police power here doesn’t refer to policing by police department, but in fact refers simply to the power of this government to do some things that currently are not embedded in our charter,” Girtz said. “Specifically, this provides us the opportunity to provide relief to the public and we wanted to make sure there was clear authority in our charter to do that, particularly in the midst of this pandemic.”
The revised loud noise ordinance discussed in the Legislative Review Committee’s last meeting was also approved in the regular session. The commission also voted to amend water and sewage payment rates in the county, a move that District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson said would save Athens residents money.