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Athens business, civic leaders voice concern over police advisory task force

The Athens Police Advisory Redevelopment Task Force issued its draft report and summary recommendations on Friday afternoon (around 4:30 p.m.), via the website. At that same time, the Task Force called for a virtual "Town Hall" meeting to accept public comment and feedback on their recommendations, report and work.

The "Town Hall" will be Monday, December 14, 2020 at 5:30 p.m, just over ONE full business day from the release of the draft report, and with no other public notice which we have been able to locate.

We at Classic City Inc. believe that the Town Hall, which requires an invitation and password on the Cisco Webex platform, as well as manner of release of the draft report violates the Georgia Open Records Act.

We have sent the letter attached below, out of deep and growing concern regarding this process to Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz:

Mr. Mayor:

We appreciate the time that you and City Manager Blaine Williams afforded us to speak earlier this month. We felt that our meeting and dialogue was cordial and productive and took you at your word that you wished to continue these discussions. This is our next step in that direction.

You referenced expecting the final report and recommendations of your Police Advisory Development Task Force, which we heard was to be released on December 11, 2020. We understood by midday Friday, December 11th, that the Advisory Development Task Force was planning some type of Town Hall meeting to release and seek community feedback on their recommendations and report sometime soon as well.

After repeated attempts to locate a copy of the DRAFT report, a document finally was posted on the website and landing page after 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon, 12/11/20. The same webpage announced a "Town Hall" for reaction and public comment beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, December 14, 2020. Our review and legal counsel indicate that public meetings and particularly public policy sessions where decisions are being made or rendered require three-days notice and publication in the county legal organ. To the best of our knowledge and we are paying attention here, the advisory board is again ignoring those basic requirements of the Georgia Open Meetings Act, as well as denying the general public any realistic timeframe to be aware that the report exists, review their draft report, or make any valid public comment.

This again is in direct conflict with the spirit and intentions which you shared with us in creating this group. We understand the difficulties of calming stormy waters and rebuilding trust and rapport with police and other first responder departments, particularly with those communities who at times are in conflict with those same peace officers. That said, Athens is a community of 125,000 residents, much broader, larger and truly diverse than a few with the loudest voices in various activist communities and organizations. You are the Mayor of a consolidated community including a broad mix of professionals, academics, college students, business owners, musicians, and artists, hospitality industry and medical workers retirees and others. Unfortunately crime, vandalism, theft and worse does occur in our community, and fortunately we have a professional, responsive, well-trained, and diverse police department ready to respond to that.

In reading the draft report, even this summary, it is difficult to know where to begin with disagreement, eye-rolling, or simply complete disbelief. As prescribed in this report, the later to be formed Community Advisory Board should be incorporated into the Athens-Clarke Charter, be led by an Auditor who may report independently to the Mayor, has unquestioned authority, purview and ability to make binding recommendations on police budget, staffing, etc...

With that structure, why would you also even need the Police Chief? Without being overly sarcastic, this recommended Community Oversight Board would be much closer to that of the German Gestapo which was a 'secret police force' overseeing the other agencies of the German Military during World War II. Scholars and followers of that war, then and now often ask... But who was watching the Gestapo?

Again, we are clear on the need/desire to build bridges, trust and open up dialogue, but all we can see that this structure might likely accomplish is chase off the department’s most tenured, and experienced police officers, and most certainly cause Chief Cleveland Spruill to consider leaving for better offers and greener pastures elsewhere. We believe that would be a tremendous loss for our community.

The Task Force recommends stipends for service to offset and reimburse expenses of volunteer service, as well as a budget as if the Community Oversight Board is an agency of Clarke County government. Several of us have served previously on a variety of volunteer boards associated with the Athens-Clarke County government, without compensation, and this potential precedent concerns us. Even state boards overseeing multi-million agencies of the state of Georgia (such as our Board of Regents) offer only a modest daily per diem for reimbursement of travel expenses for members who travel regularly to board meetings all across this state. What might even be the expenses of a Zoom meeting for an Advisory Board member?

And while we understand this board is intended in part to right wrongs and end injustices, real or perceived, aimed at policing minority communities, we question the wisdom and thinking behind specifically seeking ‘formerly incarcerated persons’ for service on this board. The oversight functions here do not relate to either the Georgia Department of Corrections or management of the Office of the Athens-Clarke County Sheriff or the Athens-Clarke County Jail.

We are also concerned about the public even being able to access this Town Hall. While prior meetings of the Task Force could be viewed after the fact on YouTube or Vimeo, and were recorded on Zoom, this meeting requires an invitation and a secure password and will be on Cisco Webex. To access the platform, you need a password. You cannot log-in this weekend, or likely on Monday until the meeting begins, and you cannot provide a password unless you have been invited. How in any way is this actually a Public Meeting?

You are certainly familiar with the phrase 'tipping point.' Communities and even nations have often reached a tipping point where the bad and challenging aspects of a region outnumber the good. We again want to reexpress our dismay that not only do some in this community seem intent on taking us there, and perhaps over the edge, but that many of our pragmatic, intelligent, and committed elected leadership seems willing to follow that path as well.

It is not our intent to be argumentative or quarrelsome. Again, we want to help, but with all due respect Mr. Mayor, this is a sham. Our discussions last week gave me and my business associates something to think about, in terms of reinvesting further in Athens and sinking our roots here deeper. This in turn has me again thinking about those roots being more like weeds that I may instead need to start pulling. This entire process has been flawed Mr. Mayor, and your credibility and administration are also being harmed by this process. We still stand ready to help, but are concerned that you soon may need to open a new search for Chief of Police. If any of us were in Chief Spruills' polished and experienced shoes...we would not stand for this.


Steve Middlebrooks

Gordon Rhoden

Charlie Upchurch

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