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)

What’s been the biggest difference for you moving from your role as a commissioner to mayor?

What I hoped to be able to do moving into the mayor’s office is have a bigger picture, stronger coordination role. And that’s what I’ve been able to do — put some bright heads at the table together and engage with this community and other communities across the country on energy efficiency, on economic development, on all matters of equity. One of the nice things is, generally speaking, if I pick up the phone and call somebody, they pick up the phone. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity I’ve had to be that, that assembler, that cat-herder.

When you were elected mayor, what issues were you most excited about tackling?

I would describe my area, or areas, of greatest interest as being that intersection of community development support and economic development. Thinking ‘How do we build activity here that’s going to benefit everybody, and how do we simultaneously make sure there are well-resourced, enriching places in every neighborhood in town, where you have access to great things, to everything in town?’

I liken running a local government to flying an airplane in that you walk on board an airplane and you see an instrument panel, and you see button after button after button and switch and meter and monitor and you have to keep your mind on lots of things at the same time … There’s a bunch we have to be attentive to at the same time, but fortunately, some of the things we’re involved in are going to help multitudes of the population.

How do you see UGA students, who are typically not long-term residents of the community, fitting into the Athens political and government sphere?

One of the great things is there are tons of public and private and nonprofit folks in this town who really benefit a lot from having engagement with the student population in Athens, or some of the academic and public service and outreach or research units on campus.

I’m always encouraging people on campus to get off campus and get into the community and make those connections. Really, probably the best part of my job is hooking people up who just wouldn’t come into contact with each other ... Part of that is the student population with the community. We’re lucky to have UGA here, but I think everybody benefits when we’re fully engaged and not just across the street from each other.

Earlier in March, the mayor and commission got together and discussed criminal justice reform. What ideas came out of that discussion, and what policies do you and the commission want to pursue?

What’s good is we’re living in a world of increasing access of knowledge about what works. Some of that’s on the preventative end. You’re thinking: ‘How do you support your elementary school and middle school and high school age population in a way that they’re not going to become criminally inclined?’

There’s a program that was active in the 1980s and ’90s called Grand Slam, sort of a weekend team gathering program that we’re re-initiating just this spring. We’re also increasing our participation in the local government in the Great Promise Partnership program that gives teenagers real jobs but also some mentoring along the way to make sure kids are on the right path from the onset.

Now, you can do all the work you can preventively, but there’s still some people who are going to get system engaged [or stuck in the system]. We want to make sure when people get system engaged, we’re doing everything we possibly can to get them back on the right track.

Some of that involves doing really good pretrial work, as soon as someone gets accused of a crime, making sure we’re getting them case management to find out if there’s some underlying needs that are getting them into trouble or keeping them in trouble ... Forward-leaning municipalities and counties find that if you just contact people, they show up for court. Lo and behold, you don’t need to charge them $500 and hold that bond. If you just send them a text message every week and send their mama a text message every week and send an email to a handful of folks, they’re going to show up in court in greater numbers than if you hold $500 of their money.

In terms of economic development, is the ACC government concerned with keeping more UGA graduates in Athens?

UGA has rightfully prided itself on all of that research and development work on campus moving to the market pretty aggressively over the past couple of years … My job is to make sure all those activities that possibly can stay right here in Athens, and they’re not going to Boston or Austin or Atlanta or Silicon Valley or other places.

At the same time, I want to make sure we’re developing good pipelines for local residents who might have been under-supported to move into those kinds of industries. Making sure we’re working with the Clarke County School District and the Athens Community Career Academy and Athens Technical College to say, ‘Hey if you’re going to be opening this new animal health facility, we’ve got some Ph.D. scientists who are going to be jumping ship from UGA to work there, but we also want to make sure that they are high-tech lab worker opportunities that somebody who might have grown up here without means in Athens can move into as well.’

Has there been any consideration by the mayor and commission at creating any form of community Wi-Fi?

We’ve looked at that. There’s a program that may be up for a vote as part of our SPLOST package in November of 2019 that would create a community-wide wireless network. We’re still looking at models at exactly how that would roll out.

We look at those areas of low access or high poverty in some cases to make sure that people can get those things. Coming into this job after 20 years in public education in this town, I recognize that information is power, and if you don’t have access to means of information, which in this day means the web, then you lose out on some opportunities for personal empowerment. We want to make sure that path is out there for everybody.

How have you tried to make yourself available and accessible to the people of Athens?

Right here in the office, I host folks every day because this is your office. I’m fortunate enough to occupy it for a few years, but it belongs to the public at large. I try and get out in the community quite a bit. I spent four hours this recent Friday afternoon knocking on doors in East Athens and just talking to folks on the street with Commissioner [Mariah] Parker. We’re just asking, ‘How are things going? Do you have any concerns? Is there anything you want us to be aware of? And even if you don’t right now, here’s our contact information and here’s how you can get in touch with us so that you can let us know when things do come up’

But then also getting out into these neighborhoods, like I described I’m doing too, to be really intentional about going to places where people just might not have the knowledge of how to get in touch with the elected officials and policymakers or if you feel disconnected from the government or from institutions in general.

It’s part of the difficult thing about being in poverty is that you’re generally working so much and so disconnected you just feel like you’re not part of the system at all, and I don’t want anyone in Athens to feel as if they’re not part of the system because this all belongs to you.

Is there any significance behind the [large horse] painting on your wall [in your office]?

Everything in this office is from local artists. Here and in the conference room next door. There’s a painting of Ray Charles from Broderick Flanagan … [The horse painting] is from Stan Mullins, probably better known as a sculptor than a painter. He did the sculpture of Vince Dooley that’s over there by Butts-Mehre. A drawing from [daughter] Noah Girtz, my own progeny … We’re in this fantastic community with these incredibly creative people, and I just want to be able to walk into my own office and see some of that every day.

We’ll end it with a burning question: Is there actually a key to the city you can give to people?

Yes [laughs] … If you go back to ancient times, there were these walled cities and the key was your way to get inside the wall. Yes, I can provide a ceremonial key to the city for those folk who’ve done fantastic things for Athens. I just feel lucky to have the key to City Hall. 

This Q&A was edited for clarity.

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