Five candidates are battling for three open at-large positions for the Athens City Council in the upcoming November election. The Athens County League of Women Voters hosted a forum Tuesday, Sept. 21, with incumbents Sarah Grace, Ben Ziff and Micah McCarey — all Democrats — as well as independent candidates Damon Krane and Iris Virjee.
Topics discussed varied from the more serious issues of tenant’s rights and housing and the lighthearted question of the place electric scooters have in Athens.
Housing, rentals and parking
Ziff said he wished to strengthen right of entry laws for landlords on rental properties, while Grace advocated for comprehensive education for tenants to be able to exercise their legal rights. Krane hopes to update the housing code to address issues including the 60-day period landlords have to fix safety violations before being fined. McCarey highlighted the need for increased communication between landlords and renters and noted that records of concerns are documented by code enforcement officials so they can be addressed.
The possibility of short-term rental units in the city was explored as a potential way for residents to afford to purchase homes with supplemental income. Those renting homes for short periods do not need rental permits, according to Grace, but middle ground would need to be met to make sure transient guest taxes are collected by the city.
Virjee expressed concern about home flippers buying up property to use as short-term rentals, as well as worry worry that outside interests could take advantage of foreclosures and take the income from the property outside the city.
The city planning commission is considering updates to the city's parking regulations, as students and residents alike find parking difficult — particularly on weekends. Improved public transportation and accessible walking paths could be a solution, said Virjee, but said that any new plans should accommodate those who travel into Athens but have no access to public transportation.
Ziff felt strongly about the unavailability of spots near residential homes or homes with no spots at all. He noted that the specific ordinance being discussed could eliminate available parking for rental homes, forcing people to park up to 1,500 feet from their residence.
“I know some people have said ‘Well what’s that? A quarter or third of a mile?’" he said. "Yeah, it is. And I know that I don’t want to carry all of my groceries a quarter of a mile in the rain.”
Grace, Ziff and Krane all said that the city is looking to be more eco-friendly. Krane said that replacing the 24-hour parking rule with neighborhood parking rules would curb emissions by eliminating the need for drivers to move their cars every day. Grace said she trusts the current process of focusing regulations on green travel versus parking availability.
One question addressed the council's fondness for suspending the rules to pass ordinances without the three readings required by law, as well as a lack of substance in council agendas. While agendas and ordinances are in the public record and available, Grace said, they can be difficult to locate and be inaccessible to people. McCarey said council members need to ensure clarification is made for the public as well as media coverage.
Simply posting documents isn't enough, said Virjee. The legal language and jargon in ordinances make them difficult for some to understand.
“It’s not just that table meetings and ordinances should be available, but they need to be publicized and accessible to all types of communities in Athens,” she said.
Council suspended the rules to pass about 25% of ordinances proposed between January and July, the NEWS reported previously. Krane said suspensions of the rules are made to limit public discussion and that the council should be more dedicated to engaging with the public.
The topic of improved city policing received mixed responses, with Grace, Ziff and McCarey emphasizing open communication between law enforcement and the public and Virjee proposing varied emergency response options so police aren’t the only assistance for those experiencing mental health issues or other emergencies. Ziff agreed, hoping for further deescalation training for officers. Krane wants more research done into racist policing, stating a need for an "honest investigation" into the issue.
Candidates generally supported council's recent decision to require racial equity training of all city employees — at a cost of $91,000 from the general fund — as long as a racial equity review is conducted beforehand to gauge the program's effectiveness.
Virjee was skeptical that the training will be enough to unlearn racist behaviors. “You can’t learn to resolve those behaviors by being in a class or something like that,” she said.
A one-time training probably won't make a difference, McCarey admitted. “Diversity, inclusion, equity, social justice — these are not problems that are fixed overnight. They are nuanced,” he said. “If it was as easy as just picking the right program or critiquing the wrong program, then we would probably have resolved a lot of the issues that we are here in this time encountering. This is not a one and done.”
On a lighter note, candidates gave their opinions on the electric scooters and their future in the city. The potential green aspect of the scooters was a common positive response but Virjee does question how green they actually are and if they take the focus away from better green transportation options. Concerns varied from their use on roads by drivers who don't follow traffic laws and the haphazard way that they are sometimes left around the city, blocking sidewalks and driveways.