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Update from apparent new ACC District 6 commissioner Houle: The Road Ahead

To say this campaign has not gone the way we expected or hoped is an understatement. The pandemic disrupted our ability to engage and share our vision with the community in the way we had desired. In the weeks preceding the election, Athens rose up alongside a movement to end systemic racism, police violence and mass incarceration nationwide. In response, ACC police attacked peaceful protesters with tear gas, bean bag rounds, and arrests, exemplifying once again the harsh reality that our community is no exception to institutional violence and injustice. Then, tragically, Commissioner NeSmith’s unexpected death three days before the election stunned all of us, filling his loved ones with grief, and saddening me, our campaign team, and the whole Athens community. If one thing is certain, it is that the future is uncertain, and 2020 continually makes that painfully clear to us with this dizzying array of circumstances.

When we learned of Jerry’s passing, we immediately ceased all campaign operations in those final days of the election, instead choosing to respect space for his loved ones to grieve, as we reflected on the whole person Jerry was. The outpouring of love and despair from across our community makes clear how great a loss his passing is and how indelible a legacy he leaves behind. He was a diligent servant leader, deeply committed to bettering people’s lives while striving for a healthier planet. I also heard from many District 6 constituents how Jerry was a particularly responsive and attentive Commissioner for them. Indeed we too remained in communication during our campaigns, and he bought me a cup of tea as we discussed our visions for Athens. As I shared in a statement on June 8, Jerry and I did not always agree on the details of how to advance our society toward justice and peace. Yet, the residents of District 6 and ACC can expect a persistent and diligent approach to policy making from me with a deep commitment to engaged and transparent leadership in service of our community and planet.

Following all this, I now find myself in a complex and bizarre situation. The ACC Board of Elections has affirmed that I am the Commissioner-elect for District 6. This is because the votes cast for Jerry are rendered void by state laws, according to our County Attorney, Judd Drake. Of all the many contingencies I imagined at the start of this campaign and since, this was something I never expected.

This means I will swear in to a four year term in January of 2021. There will also be a special election in November to complete the remainder of Jerry’s current term. Furthermore, I am aware of an injunction being filed by local attorney David Ellison, funded by ACC Republican Party chair Gordon Rhoden, challenging the Board of Elections and seeking to change the outcome of the election. I trust that the County Attorney's office applied the law correctly, but I will of course respect and respond accordingly to the final legal judgment on the matter. In the meantime, the people of District 6 deserve a seat at the table again as soon as possible and my name will be on the ballot for whichever election comes next. I feel confident that we will win and move forward in the work with a democratic mandate for our vision and platform.

The law by which I take office, like so many in the Georgia Code, is flawed. I support those working to change this and other laws that restrict and inhibit people's ability to run and their right to vote. It is imperative that we work for major reforms to our electoral processes. I firmly believe that our community’s governance should be decided by all who live here. Those who are incarcerated, or under-documented, or 16 years old, or have a hyphen in their last name, or haven’t voted in recent elections, have equal stake in our laws and policies; they deserve the right to choose who will make decisions about their lives. While these changes are urgently needed, a fight is currently underway to protect the legal rights we already have. Stacey Abrams is setting a great example with Fair Fight, and I strongly support such efforts.

As Commissioner, I will work hard with and for Athens and all the people of District 6, including those who voted for Jerry, and for the majority of residents who, for various reasons, didn't vote at all.

There is much work to do beyond the ballot box to render more perfect our imperfect democracy. As Commissioner, I am committed to maximizing your input on the most important decisions before our community, while attending to the smaller, more routine tasks of governance with the Mayor, fellow Commissioners, and staff. Already as commissioner-elect, I will be organizing town halls, policy discussions, community social events, and issuing regular newsletters. From speed bumps and sidewalks to big budgets and bold proposals, I intend to be both your resource and collaborator. My work in the years ahead will be informed by the same dedication to our community's well being, passion for justice, and compassion for every person's humanity that’s guided my work in Athens for the last 12 years and that drove me to run in the first place.

The void left by the sudden loss of Jerry is not one that can be filled by any other person. I am not a substitute for Jerry NeSmith. I will enter humbly into service as your Commissioner and commit to working hard, every day, for and with all the people of District 6 to transform Athens into a community that works for all of us.

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