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Tipping point in the Classic City (Part 2): Athens is now a refugee resettlement site

By Michael H. McLendon


Transparency vs. secrecy at City Hall

It has been said that transparency is the enemy of government.

Transparency means government officials must act openly so citizens know the decisions they are going to make. In other words, government officials have an obligation to be open, accountable, and honest with citizens.

Leaders who keep information about what the government is doing in secret, are wielding their power and control to take away the rights of citizens to make their voices heard in a timely manner and to say no.

When government leaders operate in secret, there can be no trust in them and their decisions. Citizens therefore have the right to challenge the legitimacy of those decisions and hold those leaders accountable.

A hallmark of the current ACC mayor and his administration is the failure to be transparent. In keeping with his way of doing business, the mayor made this monumental decision to fundamentally change Athens without the knowledge, advice, and consent of our commissioners, other principles in the ACC Unified Government, and citizens.

In 2014, the U.S. State Department rejected the plan to establish a refugee resettlement (RR) site in Athens because of the leadership of the then mayor. The current mayor’s strategy is to keep citizens in the dark to quelch timely and substantive engagement and eliminate the opportunity for them to express their dissent on the same issue.

The mayor may think that by keeping the RR program secret it can take root before Athenians know what is going on rendering them unable to stop it. Mayor, if that is the case, mayor, you may want to think again.

When did this start?

We now know that the mayor’s direct engagement with Bethany Christian Services (BCS) to resettle refugees in Athens began in 2021 rather than in 2022. It is possible this relationship began as early as 2019. His engagement in 2021 occurred not long after he pushed through the resolution on immigration in August 2019 telegraphing that Athens is a sanctuary friendly city.

Records demonstrate BCS was aggressively soliciting the support of the mayor along with the President of the Chamber of Commerce for its resettlement plans and both were eager to get on board. Early on BCS informed the mayor of its plans and the mayor was all in.

The mayor secretly approved the refugee plan in 2022

The mayor formally approved the plan in April 2022 and signed other letters in October 2022 and April 2023 supporting BCS’ federal grant applications for funding. The mayor has been acting with warp speed at the “beck and call” of BCS.

For example, on April 26, 2023, BCS asked the mayor to sign another letter of support, a grant application to fund services for refugees. He signed it the next day on 27 Aprilwithout any consultation or review by other ACC officials.

The mayor’s 16 May 2022 letter to the State Department (appears later in the article) stated,“On behalf of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, it is my pleasure to support Bethany Christian Services of Georgia’s proposal to establish a refugee resettlement affiliate in Athens, Georgia in the fiscal years 2023.”

He went on to say “...I have concluded that the environment in Athens, Georgia is conducive to successfully resettlement and therefore support this proposal...I personally met with representatives of Bethany Christian Services...”

He devotes the longest paragraph in his letter to explaining his support in the context of ACC’s inclusion office and its mission. He concludes his letter by stating “We welcome Bethany Christian Services...and look forward to growing our partnership as we launch a refugee resettlement program and help us meet and exceed our inclusion goals.”

Funding proposals to establish an RR program/site must demonstrate evidence of local stakeholder buy-in. Further, BCS’ New Site Rationale also had to justify “why Athens” with an analysis of the local situation, capacities, constraints, and issues.

It is possible BCS’s contract would not have been awarded without the mayor’s letter of approval based on what happened in 2014. It is also likely that the BCS proposal was based on a rose-colored view of the realities on the ground in ACC and BCS got the contract because of the exceptionally low bar set by the State Department for approving their proposal.

The Mayor's approval letter is astounding

In signing his approval letter, the mayor exceeded his authority both morallyand ethically. In this author’s view he had no legal authority to commit ACC to an unending “partnership” with such monumental consequences. It is obvious there will be additional demands on ACC taxpayer $ and services that are already stressed because of his decision.

Our current mayor has a selective memory to be able to forget the myriad of constraints and issues that were and continue to roil Athens. These same issues were at the forefront of the then mayor’s concerns in 2014. Now years later when these issues are more severe and more challenging, tour current mayor just forgets them altogether. Truth is often inconvenient.

The sole basis for his decision appears to be his desire to engage in personal virtue signaling under the banner of ACC’s inclusion policy. Rather than advocating for the equities of the citizens of Athens and placing them first in line, he seems more interested in advancing his ideology.

The mayor continually advocates for more programs and funding to mitigate the challenging socio-economic-housing problems in our community. Under the cover of secrecy, he then advocates bringing refugees and others to Athens, which will increase the competition for these same scarce resources. This is just disingenuous.

He also acknowledged that his letter of support was just another step in an on-going partnership; a partnership to which ACC’s commissioners and the public were not a party. Partnerships involve agreements, quid pro quos, transactions, processes, and other aspects of doing business together.

Words have meaning which is why there was a requirement for him to provide a letter of approval to the U.S. government. Similarly, BCS needed the mayor’s written statement of support to secure funding from various grants. There is no getting around the fact that he made commitments for ACC that he was not empowered to make that will have long term consequences.

Local community organizations seeking funding grants often seek letters of support from local government officials. Such activities, if legitimate and proper, go on in the light of public transparency. But that is not what is going on here.

The mayor's end-run around oversight

There is no evidence from Commission agendasand discussion with several commissioners that the mayor ever sought their advice, counsel, endorsement, or consent to his approval of Athens as a RR site and a partnership with BCS.

Even as several commissioners have recently become aware of some aspects of the issue and the mayor’s role, the mayor continues to be secretive. They learned that the mayor was to meet with BCS and PRM staff about the Athens RR program on 7 March and asked to attend the meeting. The mayor refused the request of elected officials – representatives of ACC citizens – to attend that meeting. So much for transparency.

The mayor’s exclusion of the commission demonstrates that he does not believe he is accountable to anyone. Perhaps, he thinks he is a king and that he can disrespect the role and authority of the commission, and his responsibility to act with transparency and integrity.

He likely did not involve the City Attorney and City Manager in what he was doing out of fear. He likely feared they would have questioned the propriety of his actions given the monumental nature of his decision with its risks and unknowable consequences.

In our form of government, the City Manager is vested with significant authority, and he would have exercised his due diligence responsibility to review and make judgments on such commitments. Similarly, the City Attorney would have needed to perform a legal review, likely asking the mayor uncomfortable questions. They would have also blown the whistle to the Commissioners who were unaware of what the mayor was doing.

How many refugees and other immigrants are in Athens?

The short answer is that BCS has not been transparent and responsive in answering specific questions about the refugee population. Further, no one is accountable and responsible for oversight of the total refugee population in Athens and their status in terms of transition and their circumstances.

BCS senior officials have stated that RR sites can expect to serve 50-250 individuals per year. Unlike BCS, the Bureau of Population. Refugees, and Migration (PRM) has been more candid. BCS served 56 people through the Refugee and Placement Program in fiscal year 2023 (October 2022 – Sept 2023). Further, Athens is currently approved to serve 125 individuals in fiscal year 2024 (Oct 1, 2023 – Sept 30, 2024). As of February 2024, BCS has served 86 peoplethrough the Refugee Reception and Placement program.

Other than anecdotal information, we do not know their countries of origin. For example, it appears some numbers of Syrians have arrived in Athens but that is all we know.

In 2022 before establishment of the RR site, BCS told the mayor that the first 25 Afghan families were to arrive in Athens as part of a larger relocation Afghan refugee project. We do not know if they arrived or if they did, what happened.In 2023, BCS stated in communications to the mayor that 90 refugees were transitioning in September from BCS’ provider oversight after 90 days. What happened to this group of refugees? We do not know.                             .

Many Athenians have long suspected that there is an illegal immigrant population in Athens particularly given the mayor’s welcoming policies. However, the circumstances surrounding the tragic event in February made the public keenly aware of a range of concerns, not just safety and security.

There is no data on how many illegal immigrants are here or their countries of origin. Some insights can be gleaned from Clarke County School District (CCSD) data (from an Open Records Request).

CCSD is also facing challenges, Data for this 2023-2024 school year shows that there are 19 students from Guatemala, 22 from Honduras, 83 from Venezuela, and 104 from Mexico enrolled. Because of certain guidelines CCSD cannot report on country data where the numbers are below 10. It may be that some children are not in school and more will arrive.

There is also a credible report that the local Department of Family and Children Services has been dealing with individuals from Haiti. There have likely been similar contacts with other providers of health and social services.

The refugee and illegal immigrant populations are growing as well as the homeless population that also competes for benefits and services. Athens is not immune from the illegal immigrant trends and problems facing other cities particularly as long as Athens is seen as a sanctuary friendly city where the porch light is on. So, we can assume there is no ceiling on how large the illegal immigrant population could become.

While one can make rough estimates of how many could be in Athens, that estimate is too speculative to include here. The point is the number is not zero and citizens know it is a large population based on their observations. The citizens of ACC have many questions, but there is no desire on the part of the mayor and his administration to provide answers.

On the positive side, there is anecdotal information that some refugees have been hired locally and have housing, but we know it is not a rosy picture. There is no comprehensive picture of the total number of refugees who are in Athens and their job, housing, education, and socio-economic situation. As a result, it is not possible to make informed judgements much less formulate a comprehensive strategy to deal with a myriad of issues.

Some churches, ministries, and non-profits are attempting to assist, which reflects positively on the Athens community. There is also evidence that some number of refugees attend an English as a Second Language Program. But again no one has total visibility of the challenge and the details. .

The reality is that this growing population composed of refugees and illegal immigrants exacerbates the challenges in meeting the current demands for services in ACC. The scope and complexity of the overall demand for services and benefits were not planned for and resourced by local government and nonprofits.

Final thoughts for now...

No matter what one’s values and beliefs are, we can agree that we want to treat people in a compassionate way. That does not mean bending the rules and not enforcing laws, norms of behavior, and policies in order for some in the community and government to feel good.

God gave us minds so we can think, and hearts to discern. Is it compassionate to create unrealistic expectations when there are already growing tensions for the competition for services and $? Is this fair to those who live in our community when there needs are not being addressed?

Many questions remain. For example, is this all part of a stealth plan to make Athens the next Clarkston, Ga?

From his actions we know the mayor believes that transparency is the enemy of government, and it is reasonable to believe he feels comfortable acting in secret to achieve his goals without any accountability.

There is a strong argument here that he has failed to act with integrity in this matter and his actions should not be accepted as being legitimate. He is abusing the power of his office and citizens must send him a clear message of disapproval.

It is time for the commissioners to step up to represent the equities of citizens and take action to hold the mayor accountable. Just because this is a federal government program does not mean ACC has to accept it.

We also need to ask what else is the mayor doingin secret.

Stay tuned for Part 3: What We Need to Do


Michael H. McLendon resides in Athens-Clarke County Commission District 7


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7 Comments


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Nowhere in either letter does it mention undocumented immigrants. These comments are the most unchristian, hateful and ignorant comments one can make regarding refugees and immigrants. Not one of you would be here if it weren’t for the open door policy of our country to help those experiencing poverty, persecution, discrimination and the like in their home countries. Shame on every one of you that continues to display the xenophobia of the conservatives in Athens. Thank goodness you are all the minority.

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It appears that our autocrat mayor has been a busy little boy. Employing dictatorial methods he has sought to set this community on a course that will have major impact on the citizens and local resources for years to come. In refusing to be transparent with the elected representatives of the commission and the community at large he has violated the trust of the people in Athens-Clarke County. Worse still, his narcissistic hubris will have untold effect on neighboring communities. His behavior is both immoral and dishonorable and he has forfeited the right to hold a position of authority and influence. He may deem recall attempts as “insincere” but clearly he should be removed from office. I encourage every memb…

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Excellent research. Thank you for bringing the clandestine actions of our mayor to light.

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Well written. Thank you for your time and comments. It’s a sad state of affairs.

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