OPINION: Local Commissioners Attempt to Save their Seats

Updated: Jan 25


By Mara Zuniga

Commissioner Tim Denson from District 5 made a call to “Rally to Defend Our Local Democracy” on Thursday January 20, 2022, at 4 pm. Perhaps a better title would have been a “Rally to Defend Our Commissioners’ Seats?” That would have been more truthful. The reality is that these three commissioners are needed to create the majority votes necessary to continue the frivolous spending of taxpayer money. It’s not about equity for the people or democracy. The original map was made just to ensure the victory of three incumbents who are running this year- Tim Denson, Russell Edwards and Melissa Link. That’s undemocratic.

At the rally, from what I could see, there were only four black residents present- local artist Broderick Flanagan, Commissioner Mariah Parker, Commissioner Patrick Davenport and close friend to the mayor, Mr. Charles Hardy. Mr. Hardy is the sole applicant who got the $2 million-plus tent encampment contract that is not yet signed or set up despite the “urgent” vote by the local government to get him started. It had to be passed because the same seven-majority commissioners (Denson, Link, Parker, Houle, Edwards, Myers, and Davenport) said they did not want the homeless to be cold this winter. Yet here we are with winter half over and the homeless situation remains unresolved. It appears the contract remains unsigned due to the cost and difficulties encountered by the vendor in obtaining liability insurance and other emerging issues the commissioners either lacked the foresight to consider or simply chose to disregard.

On the premises, but visibly missing to me and the crowd was Mokah Johnson, founder of Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

Also in attendance at the rally were Mayor Kelly Girtz, commissioners Carol Myers, Melissa Link, Russell Edwards, Paul Glaze of the New Georgia Project, and approximately 25 or so older white attendees. The attendees were friendly, welcoming and smiled at me. I seemed to be the only Hispanic present. Other than the standard small circle of activists who show up for photo ops at these public events, I wondered if they even noticed the telling lack of support from the Black and Hispanic residents.

A group of Athens residents stand in front of City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022 to show support for Spencer Frye's ACC Board of Commissioners redistricting map

The leaders initiating this rally seem quite condescendingly to be projecting a public message they are fighting for Black and Hispanic residents who are too ignorant to get identification, internet, information and are too weak to know how to stand up for themselves and make changes without their local leadership. I would remind them to look at all the amazing changes in society that people of color have made during a lifetime and continue to do so.

A gathering of supporters for mayor Kelly Girtz and seven commissioners on Thursday Jan. 20, 2022 at a "Rally to Defend Our Local Democracy"

Also present, was the news media. I have attended rallies before and see the “same” people writing the news and the same photographers present. The usual “staging” for propaganda pictures was perfect. The angles at which the pictures were taken, by the media, made it appear as if there were more people than there actually were. Visuals are very effective in conveying a message. Hence, three homeless people seemed to have been carefully placed at the entrance of city hall to serve as a reminder to the attendees of the mayor and seven-member commissioners’ policies towards the homeless in Athens. I’m sure the homeless were gone the next day. The same type of staging had been done during the voting for the tent encampment. Once the vote passed, the homeless seemed to have disappeared.

A homeless person outside City Hall on Jan. 20, 2020

So, why are the seven commissioners and mayor so angry at the state legislator map? When in fact the legislators created more equity in our community by adding one more majority minority district? This was something the original map approved by the seven commissioners did not have. I thought it was fantastic to have an additional majority minority district.

So, Ms. Wright, Mr. Hamby, and Ms. Thornton were all correct in voting against the original map because it did nothing for minorities but kept the status quo for those three commissioners.

And what did commissioners Wright, Hamby, and Thornton gain in return for looking out for our community? They were publicly vilified by the Athens “one voice” media and suffered public social media attacks from their colleagues and criticism from friends and foes alike. Sadly, the attacks and criticism were lacking facts and substance and focused on propaganda, emotion, and personal slander. Their names and reputation were smeared by false and unfounded accusations on social media by their colleagues and the news. Does this commission have any standards of professional and or ethical conduct? I would think that defamation should be grounds to dismiss or at the very least publicly censure the commissioners who behaved in this manner. Disagreements and public debate on public policy are inherent to the “Democracy” this rally supposedly was supporting. Defamation of character, personal attacks and outright slander of public officials are poor excuses for public debate of policy issues.

Homeless persons sheltering outside City Hall on Jan. 20, 2020

I was especially appalled at the way Ms. Thornton, a college graduate, and a strong black woman, was attacked. Per her bio online, Ms. Thornton has given so much to the Athens community by serving about 20 years on the board of education and as the Statewide Director for the Georgia Clients Council whose mission is to empower low-moderate income Georgians to address poverty in their communities.

Consider this: a minority Athenian with a record of long public service to her community was publicly attacked by commissioners some of whom had very few years of public service to this community and most of whom moved to Athens from other areas of the country. And even more revealing is the Athens media united support of this very public attack.

Commissioner Russell Edwards, at the rally, said we are living in times like the reconstruction era (1865-1877). In that era approximately 2,000 black citizens were lynched and murdered unjustly. “A lynching is the public killing of an individual who has not received any due process. These executions were often carried out by lawless mobs”,…..under the pretext of justice.

Some of these commissioners have publicly and willfully sought to damage the reputations of commissioners Wright, Hamby, and Thornton solely for the purpose of retaining the positions for Link, Denson and Edwards on the commission. And while they think that the reputational lynching of two whites was appropriate because it makes them look like heroes to themselves, the reputational and professional lynching of Ms. Thornton was one that was abhorrent. I believe Commissioner Thornton will be 70 this year, that means that in 1967 she was 15 years old. Many things happened in 1967, during the civil rights movement, that the commissioner lived to experience quite vividly such as: Thurgood Marshall becoming the first Black American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and Carl Stokes becoming the first Black American elected as mayor of Cleveland, Ohio.

Those who attacked commissioners Wright, Hamby and Thornton should be ashamed. Using such tactics to “bully” all three of their colleagues to vote their way should be penalized. If they really believed in Democracy, they would not be trying to force their will on others. Instead, they would make their case in a public debate using facts and information to support their position not personal insult and public attacks. Those are the weapons of the ignorant and the cowardly.

I guess someone told the attacking commissioners to tone down their verbal assault on Ms. Thornton because the blitz continues on social media towards the other two commissioners, but assaults directed at Ms. Thornton have subsided quite a bit; however, the damage has already been done. The online Mayor & Commission session that followed was cut short by commissioner Edwards as he became increasingly impatient and angry towards Ms. Thornton for not accepting his point of view. God forbid she makes him angry?

Another observation pertaining the “Rally to Call for Democracy” is this- why was Democratic state Rep. Spencer Frye’s map not done originally? Why now, come up with that extra majority minority district? I tell you why, because the mayor and those seven commissioners need those three seats to continue imposing their politics on Athens. Commissioner positions require them to be non-partisan and work for the whole community, but they are not non-partisan and thus do not feel they have to represent all of Athens.

If the seven commissioners have many Athenian supporters, as they claim, then why worry about those three seats? If they have a majority of voters backing their agenda why not just put three other people from their camp to run and win?

It’s because they deliver a perception. A perception that a majority of Athens approves of their fiscally irresponsible spending.

Maybe their version of democracy is one used by Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Communist party in Russia and head of government in 1917, a term called democratic centralism. “Lenin considered a small "vanguard of the revolution" necessary to guide the people…. So, a small group of leaders (like the seven commissioners and the mayor) make decisions in the name of the people, based on their perceptions of what the people want and need.”

The original map was flawed. The mayor and commissioners knew this. They fabricate false information, use theatrics, and attempt to raise emotions of people who are susceptible to injustice for their own purpose, to keep their seats and to keep their power. Even Commissioner Parker was asked to perform at the rally to raise the emotions of the white attendees and to convey some level of support from the minority community since they were noticeably absent. These white progressive leaders and their followers seem convinced that it is their duty and right to save minorities who they deem are incapable of standing up for themselves. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but the Black and Hispanic citizens of Athens don’t need you. We have rights and political power despite your consistent negative message that we don’t.

We have had and continue to have great leaders of color. Again, it’s not about equity or about democracy for the mayor and these seven commissioners. If it were to be about equity, Mrs. Thornton would have been voted mayor pro temp not Carol Myers, a white commissioner, with less experience. They are on a high, fueled by a desire for power. They use fear to keep minorities afraid to speak up because they too will be called out and be publicly and reputationally lynched. The fact that the rally was comprised mainly of whites is very telling. The mayor and the infamous seven commissioners want to continue holding their majority so they can continue their frivolous spending on things like the $314,000 public toilet, $2 million-plus tent encampment (which despite the urgency in voting, it is not up and running. The homeless remain outside in the cold), the eviction program (which Mr. Denson’s numerical data to support its creation, was “a flood”) and the disingenuous 100 % wage increase requested by the same commissioners losing their seats (despite not doing the same for their staff). The mayor responded that he would put it on the agenda and then redirected it to a committee when the article exposing this came out. He must have known this was not good for his campaign.

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