Monday, July 31, 2006

Open Thread: District 1

Got an email in the ol’ inbox the other day. Fella who is a regular reader (didn’t know we had those, really) wants us to do some open threads about each race. Now, y’all are going to talk about what y’all are going to talk about, and these things usually end up digressing, but never let it be said that we don’t give the people what they want. (Unless, you know, what they want is daily posting or something.)

Anyway, we’ll kick it off with a race we haven’t paid much attention to yet: District 1. James Garland, who is a frequent visitor here, is squaring off against Doug Lowry and Jim Ponsoldt.

Here’s what I know about these cats.

James Garland is sometimes off-puttingly wonky (and that’s saying a lot coming from me), but he’s also responsible for one of the classiest things I’ve ever heard a pol say. Those of you in know remember that Garland ran against Charles Carter in 2002 as well. Issues-wise, Garland wants to lower our property taxes, which as a property owner, I’m actually ambivalent about. He also feels like some of the development-related ordinances (particularly stream buffers) are restrictive, which bothers me somewhat, since I kind of like streams and creeks.

However, Garland is also saying a lot of good things that I do like. He’s opposed to the smoking ban, for starters. He also thinks that the county’s definition of family ordinance is crap. But the best thing James Garland is saying is something that a lot of folks on the Commission would prefer not be said at all. If you live outside the old (pre-unification) city limits, you’ve been consistently screwed since unification started, especially if you live in North Athens. So, Garland says we need to make sure that every person in ACC has access to the same services – meaning fire protection, water and sewer, etc. For what it’s worth, I agree. But, you can’t do that and lower property taxes, in my opinion.

Jim Ponsoldt is also a heckuva guy. He’s a law professor and is involved in various progressive causes around town. Ms. Publius had him for a class once. She liked him. Jim Ponsoldt doesn’t really care for John Barrow (esp. since Barrow went all Sean Hannity clone on us), although Ponsoldt did give him some money in 2004. (Barrow that is, not Hannity)

Doug Lowry I don’t know at all. I’ve seen him in public maybe twice. So, here’s what I know. He’s running for Commission, and he has the bitchinest ‘stache in the race.

Garland is the only one who has reached out to us over here, for whatever that’s worth to you. He’s working the blog community and keeping us in the loop on his press releases, etc. So, I guess if there’s any lesson to be gleaned from that it is that if you reach out to us, we’ll actually talk about more than whether you like John Barrow or not, or how cool your ‘stache is.

Whatever. Get to work – we want to know what you think, kids.


John_Parker said...

I know James Garland pretty well, and you've got an accurate description of him. I doubt I'll be voting for him, because he's a little too conservative in his attitude about many issues. I've had my own frustrations/encounters with the "brain trust" of the mayor/commission over the past few years, and he was solidly in our corner. I like him as a person, but he's a little too far to the right for me.

I know Jim Ponsoldt, too, though I never took one of his classes. Having followed his commentary (letters to the editor, etc.), I think he's the candidate for me. He's against a lot of the crap the mayor/commission try to pull, and having a lawyer that's smart on the commission (rather than a lawyer that just thinks he's smart) can only be a good thing.

andyrusk said...

Lowering property taxes- easier said than done. 51 percent of our square acreage ain't taxable (UGA, churches, etc.).Perhaps more reasonable and realistic would be to find a way to "freeze" them- keep them from increasing so much every year. But then, we gotta keep pace with the rate of inflation at least.

"Lowering property taxes"- a good piece of campaigning with across-the-board-appeal.

And hell yeah, Nowhere Road needs city sewer and water. They're paying for it already (in their property taxes). A lot of folks are behind this notion, and if anybody running gets to take a shot at debating any of the incumbents, they ought to take 'em to task on it.

I like Jim Ponsoldt, if the man's politics are adequately reflected in his frequent letters to the editor.

Garland's dislike of the stream buffer chaps my ass. Realize that in this red state our current environmental protections are on the MINIMAL side of the EPA spectrum. And heck, the EPA is quietly being dismantled, has been for the last 6 years.

Charles R said...

Where has Garland explained his views on why stream buffers are bad or unnecessary or ... ?

Anonymous said...

James Garland is very, very conservative and hence will not get my vote.

I like Jim Ponsoldt a lot and he is certainly right on the issues, however, I will be rooting for Doug Lowery. Ponsoldt may have more educational experience (i.e. law school professor), but Doug Lowry is the guy who has literally missed like 2 meetings in the last four years. It's kind of sad in a way that he's got that much time on his hands, but the guy lives and breathes this stuff. He would make a great Commissioner.

By the way, thanks for taking my suggestion to do an open thread on each race. I know beggers can't be choosers, but I'd really love a State races (i.e. State House/State Senate) section.

raven said...

The smoking ban is great!

retired_cowboy said...

Garland, Rusk, and Vaughn and others are missing a lot of facts about the water/sewer service but since I'm not voting for any of them then I'm not going to be the one to tell them how to get their facts straight. If you're going to run for public office, you ought to show that you're willing to do your own homework.

Publius said...

In defense of Andy Rusk, I've sat down and talked to him a few times. He's got his shit together, and he's done more homework on the issues than some of the sitting commissioners. I was pretty impressed at his grasp of the policy end of things. Similarly, Ed Vaughn used to be a city planner, and James Garland doesn't appear to be a moron either.

So some candidates are missing facts, but you're not going to share what you think they're missing? Um. Ok.

james garland said...

As the candidate primarily under discussion in this thread I’ll jump in.

First, some general comments. Of all the things I anticipated being called before November, “off-puttingly wonky” was not among them. However, I take the description in the spirit in which it was intended and gladly admit to its accuracy. The reason for this is simple: the devil is, indeed, to be found within the details of government policy. Thus, I have opted for a series of specific policy proposals as part of my campaign, rather than employ the usual bland pronouncements associated with campaigning. These proposals did not originate in a vacuum. Each has a history and reflects specific circumstances. Hence, the “wonkiness” of my proposals and my campaign web site, which has been up for about 4-5 months now (shameless plug alert, the URL is For what it is worth, some of my positions and policy proposals are anything but conservative, which apparently will come as a big surprise to some. Be that as it may, on to some of the points raised thus far.

Regarding Publius’ comments on taxes and services, the following two paragraphs are verbatim from various pages of my web site:

“The Commission should consider a reduction in the property tax millage rate in the general services district as permitted in Part I, Section 1-105. This reduction would serve to partially compensate residents in the district for the increasingly restrictive zoning, dramatically increased stream buffers, and continuing absence of basic governmental services in the peripheral areas of the county.”


“Sanitary sewer interceptor line upgrades and extensions, wastewater treatment facility upgrades, and the sanitary sewer pump station upgrade will be accomplished using Public Utilities Department funds. The Public Utilities Department has plans to extend water lines to every property in the county bordering a public roadway. These lines are to be constructed using SPLOST funds. Property owners will be responsible for the cost of extending the lines from the boundaries of their properties to their homes or businesses and connecting to the county’s water system.”

Combining the two ideas, my proposal is to roll back the millage rate only in the so-called general services district (and perhaps not even the entire district, depending on the level of services available in different areas), not an across the board reduction for the entire county. Insofar as services being extended into the formerly unincorporated areas of the county (which amounts to preciously little in my opinion), such extensions do not currently rely on property taxes, nor would they in the future. Sewer lines are being paid for by the Public Utilities Department fund (generated by existing water service and sewer service revenue; the Department turns a profit, thus it has an accumulating fund). Water lines are being paid for by SPLOST. Fire stations and the like could also be funded by SPLOST (and I will take the opportunity to note that if the station in Five Points had not been situated on the most expensive property to be found in the area and not extravagantly overbuilt, the station on Nowhere Road may have been completed by now). Once constructed, fire stations would be operated out of the county’s general fund, which does in fairness draw on property taxes, but those would be an increasing source of revenue simply by virtue of increased assessments even without a millage rate increase. Thus, I believe that basic services could be provided to the residents of District 1 without any property tax increase.

Regarding Andy’s comment on a property tax “freeze,“ this paragraph is verbatim from my web site:

“The Commission should ask Clarke County’s legislative delegation to introduce local legislation in 2007 permitting a local referendum on a “floating” homestead exemption. Such an exemption would increase annually to correspond to a home’s increased assessed value. Even without millage rate increases on the parts of the Board of Education or the Commission, property owners are faced with tax increases on a yearly basis by virtue of increasing market value (as conveniently determined by county government). Dozens of counties and municipalities across the state have already voted to implement similar measures.”

This would only apply to those properties claimed as homesteads, not to rental, business, or industrial properties (from which the bulk of property taxes come in any event).

Regarding Charles’ comments on stream buffers, this paragraph is directly from my web site:

“The Stormwater Advisory Committee was created in April 2003 for the purpose of studying issues associated with stormwater runoff. In December, the Commission adopted a temporary 75 foot stream buffer, uniform throughout the county regardless of specific circumstances. In doing so, it ignored the recommendations of the Stormwater Advisory Committee. By the same token, neither did the county’s Planning Department advocate uniform buffers. At that time, I chastised the Commission, noting that supposedly temporary restrictions had a habit of becoming permanent. Sure enough, in November 2004 the Commission voted to adopt the supposedly temporary restrictions as a permanent measure. In the words of one dissenting commissioner, the ordinance had been crafted “on the fly,” as it had not been included in the briefing material prepared for commissioners’ benefit. Again, the Commission pointedly ignored the recommendations of the Stormwater Advisory Committee, which had proposed a three-tiered system. Not only were the group’s recommendations not enacted, they were never even brought up for a vote.”

As noted, I predicated (sort of) that this would happen in a December 2003 Athens Weekly News column, a year before the Commission acted:

“. . . the [Stormwater Advisory] committee’s thoughts on delaying a commission vote on a temporary extension of stream buffers until more study could be done to assess its effects fell on deaf ears. Time will tell if this restriction becomes permanent, as ‘temporary’ government measures have a habit of doing.”

Of course, that is exactly what happened. So, the problem with stream buffers is not so much the buffers themselves, but the manner in which a one-size-fits-all ordinance was disingenuously rammed down the community’s throat.

Another thing about the restrictiveness of development ordinances, specifically in District 1; coupled with the down-zoning of the residential potential of the AR zones from one house per acre to one house per ten acres and the elimination of some 35 liner miles of projected sanitary sewer lines form the Unified Government’s original Service Delivery Plan of 1995, the imposition of dramatically increased stream buffers has served to greatly impair the property rights of rural land owners. With the development potential of their land slashed, have the properties of rural landowners been systematically reassessed to reflect their greatly diminished value? This is a rhetorical question; the answer is an emphatic “no.”

Similarly, various development ordinances have increased the price of housing in all areas of the county, such as those concerning tree removal, mass grading, density restrictions, stream buffers, etc. We can argue as to the desirability of such ordinances on “quality of life” grounds, and that is all well and good, but what is less arguable is that they have the unintended consequence of driving up the cost of any housing constructed in the county. The Commission still does not seem to understand the law of unintended consequences. There is much more to this issue than simply thinking that guy Garland is too conservative and doesn’t like stream buffers.

Regarding Anonymous’ comments on attending Commission meetings, I’ve been there and done that. From early in 2001 through 2004, I was at more Commission meetings that anyone not on the county payroll. It didn’t matter; the Commissioners usually have their minds made up well before the night of any given vote. Simple being at the meetings doesn’t really count for much, though it does one some exposure.

And finally, regarding TINRM’s comments, I assure you that I try to do my homework, usually succeeding quite well. In addition to my ongoing participation in the political process and my continuing research designed to keep me on top of issues, I’ve met with the heads of the Transportation and Public Works Department, the Public Utilities Department, the Planning Department, and the Economic Development Foundation, among others, for the very purpose of getting my factual points straight. If I am in error, I am certainly open to constructive criticisms.

Some concluding thoughts. I am the currently the only candidate for District 1 to have a campaign web site, wonky or otherwise, and am the only one with a presence in the local blogosphere (why is that, with qualifying a month behind us and fewer than 100 day to go until the election?). That being the case, I have knowingly set myself up as a target for would-be pundits and the other candidates regarding my positions and policy proposals. On the other hand, however, such a stance puts me in a position to lead the debate concerning the issues that I think are important.

My campaign will rely neither on vacuous platitudes nor on catchy slogans or sound bites, which are completely meaningless insofar as actual governing is concerned. Some will agree with my policy proposals and their underlying philosophy, others will not. Whether this approach translates into a winning electoral strategy remains to be seen. Nonetheless, I am not varying my message to cater to different groups, neither am I engaged in “triangulation.” Those who cast their ballots for me will do so with a good knowledge of what to expect.

On a lighter note, I was the first to advance vote down at the Board of Elections office this morning (Tuesday). They had 93 voters on Monday, a surprisingly high total. Of course, turnout is expected to be very low.

retired_cowboy said...

Mr. Garland does indeed have the salient facts that the other candidates were missing and they should probably take lessons in wonkishness from him.

I believe I erred in lumping him in but I think other comments on this site may have led me to believe that he was a party to their misunderstanding. For that, I offer my apologies to Mr. Garland.

For the rest of you - start studying!

Now, as to other opinions offered by Mr. Garland, I respectfully disagree with his assessments but, that's what is good about the freedom to discuss with knowledgeable individuals.

james garland said...

Actually, I will benefit from the input garnered through this thread. One of the dangers of being of a wonkish bent is that you sometimes lose sight of the fact that most folks are not. While I was fully aware that property taxes do not fund water and sewer line expansions, I can see where my proposal regarding reducing the millage rate in the general services district may have given the opposite impression (which I assume is what prompted TINRM’s comments). Thus I will alter the copy on my web site to avoid giving anyone else that impression in the future.

As to disagreements on the issues, there is no problem. One of the stock lines I have used for years is that “reasonable people can disagree about policy.” I have found that too many people take policy disagreement as personal affronts. While the issues are certainly important, Robert Duvall's Tom Hagan said it best: its not personal, its business.

Anonymous said...

This one is easy for me. I'm supporting Doug Lowry, who has done and will do the work. I was shocked that Jim Ponsoldt decided to try to Elton Dodson Doug's Ed Robinson. He was encouraged to run by Bike Athens folks, the same folks who recruited Elton for Ed Robinson. After Ed had worked for over a year on the race, the powers that be decided that Elton was more receptive to their environmental agenda, and helped him beat Ed.
I've gotten shocked stares when I say I'm supporting Doug... one very well known environmentalist shook her head and whispered "but he's not green!" Which is bullshit. Doug is just willing to stand up to the Bike Athens folks, and for that they recruited Jim Ponsoldt to run against him.
Bike Athens and GrowGreen are very aggressive politically, no doubt about it. I wonder if the voters of Athens-Clarke realise how much these two groups manipulate the Commissioners, several of whom they consider "their" personal advocates for their agendas.
Doug has worked w/lot's of progressive groups... was on the Board of the Economic Justice Coalition, worked at the NEGA Food Bank, helped for months with the WOW playground, and is (I think) a vice chair of some sort w/the Federation of Neighborhood folks.
He just doesn't see bike lanes as an urgent issue in District 1. District 1 is huge, y'all, and largely rural. What little bit of agriculture still happens in Clarke County probably takes place in District 1.
Anyway, don't let BikeAthens Ed Robinson Doug Lowry. They are being bullies.


retired_cowboy said...

I always chuckle when I read about the "powerful influence" of BikeAthens. I know lots of folks who are active with BikeAthens and I know most of the commissioners.

The fact that quite a few of the commissioners agree with most of the goals of BikeAthens is not evidence of their political power. It's just that those commissioners happen to believe in a lot of the same things.

I will say that BikeAthens does a much better job of presenting their cases than other groups like the Chamber. The Chamber has this huge budget and paid staff and an automatic seat at the table for most committees so they should be very powerful and persuasive but they usually just never show up until the very last minute and never offer any real data or evidence when they finally do show up. The all volunteer membership of BikeAthens is more effective because they get involved early and they do their homework and they lobby with data and evidence and they don't rely on emotion, accusation, and invectives like the totally inept Chamber guys usually do.

The lesson here is how to be effective and groups like the Chamber and the Homebuilders and such, just haven't learned to work with the community as a whole and certainly not with the commission. With all the resources at their command vs. the dirt-poor groups like BikeAthens and Grow Green, you would think they could at least show up once in a while to discuss the issues before the night of the votes. It's pretty hard to take them serious.

I agree that Robert Mabry is a rising star on the political scene!

john_parker said...

See, this is my problem. I think that Garland clearly has the best idea of what the role of a commissioner is. I agree with him on a number of issues. I know him to be receptive to comments, and certainly not shy about engaging in conversations about issues. I just have basic philosophical differences with him about the overall role of government. After reading his website, I can't say for sure who I'm going to vote for. I have some thinking ahead...

James, since you're on here, just a quick comment about the student-centered district. Definitely a good idea -- I can't believe how uninvolved most UGA students are in local politics. The main problem with your proposal would be that most of those students aren't registered to vote in ACC. I don't know that they will become more involved and register here without a fundamental change in their conception of their role in the community. Other than that, I'm really impressed with your proposals.

james garland said...

Thanks, John. Hopefully others will follow your example of finding out about me for themselves and not relying on the caricatures that some will try to paint of me.

While it is true that individual students come and go, I feel that student interests remain more or less constant over the years. Thus, giving them more of a voice in local government is an idea worth pursuing. Regarding their influence on local politics, you are correct in noting that the key is to get them registered to vote here as opposed to back home.

For those interested, cruise over to the Athens Chat blog to see an exchange on “floating” homestead exemptions; look toward the bottom on the “Milestone” thread under Athens Government & Events (the URL is