By Alexander Robinson
Clarke Central High School
On May 22, District 9 commissioner Kelly Girts defeated Harry Sims and Ritchie Knight, becoming the mayor-elect of Athens Clarke County with 60 percent of the vote. Girtz hopes to reduce systemic poverty and increase economic development come January 2019, when he’ll be sworn in. Girtz, however, is already preparing for the job.
“I’ve had conversations with incoming and continuing commissioners just to develop stronger relationships,” Girtz said. “I have relationships with essentially everybody who’s been in or is coming into office. I just want a chance to talk a little bit about shared interests and to make sure that when we’re all sworn in in January that we’re very productive, focused and disciplined — and that we get a lot done.”
As for a top priority, Girtz believes that it is crucial to focus on all aspects of municipal government and that things must be done in conjunction with one another to better the community.
“Often people ask, ‘What’s your first order of business? What’s the one thing that you need to get ready to do?’ Generally, it’s hard to say just one thing because I think about a community like how I think about a body,” Girtz said. “You can’t pay attention just to your heart or just to your lungs or just to your diet. You need to think about all of these things together. A community works the same way.”
Specifically, Girtz would apply this philosophy to the city’s budget, believing that government spending shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.
“If we’re thinking about affordable housing to the exclusion of job creation, or bike and (pedestrian) infrastructure to the exclusion of economic development, we’re not doing everything we should be,” Girtz said. “We really have to think about these things as a tapestry. That’s gonna be my approach towards policy and budgeting.”
Patrick O’Connor, a professor at the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia, voted for Girtz believing that he had the most experience with regard to local government.
“There were three candidates, but his positions were most similar to mine,” O’Connor said. “I think he is the person who thought the most carefully about the different issues, and his degree of preparation is good for that job. He’s had prior experience thinking about political things relevant to Athens.”
O’Connor also hopes that Girtz will be able to capitalize on the conversations he’s had with the commissioners to address the housing issue facing Athens.
“The position of mayor in Athens is limited. He can’t just do things by fiat, he has to deal with other commissioners who are interested,” O’Connor said. “I think a lot of people who have been in Athens for a long time are concerned about the over-commercialization of it. Rather than having it be local people running local businesses, we get these really big apartment complexes that are built by developers from outside of Athens. A lot of the laws that might keep Athens kind of local and cool haven’t been strong enough.”
Girtz believes that the solution is an increase in mixed-use property and that students should be incorporated more into Athenian life.
“I think that description of a balancing act is apt,” Girtz said. “Obviously, with 37,000 college students in this town, folks need to be housed. What we hope is that they’re housed in a way in which they’re well integrated into the community and have access to the resources they need. Having students live close to campus and close to downtown has produced some positive impacts.”
Moving forward, Girtz also hopes that he’ll be able to help create more jobs and increase the University of Georgia’s economic impact in Athens. Girtz’s main goal is to create a more cohesive community.
“As we look at our adult population, we need to do a better job at particularly growing jobs from within, but also being attractive to employers who might wish to locate here,” Girtz said. “We can also collaborate with all of the university laboratory activity that goes on. There’s so much that happens on campus that’s birthed in a lab or design studio that finds a home in the private sector — sometimes in Atlanta, Boston or on the West Coast. I want to make sure we’re retaining that here.”