On precinct returns, Nancy Denson owes her election mainly to Clarke County. Gwen O’Looney actually got majorities within the old Athens city limits. There were many constituencies and factors to Denson’s election, but the pattern made me wonder about the current political state of the Unified Government.
It’s now 20 years old, but the consolidation of Athens and Clarke governments seems to denote a rift in priorities and coalitions. Throughout the ’80s, county voters rejected unification, mainly because of lopsided benefits. However, it was approved in 1991. From what I can tell, the basic contract is that Athens gets a larger tax base and the County gets a more efficient services. For the smallest county in Georgia, this contract makes eminent sense, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get strained politically.
The election of Nancy Denson seems to signal that the County thinks it is getting the short end of the stick. Examples that might be causing the angst is the failure of the unified government to implement water and sewage service to the whole County; regulations meant for in-town growth, but dampen economic viability in the County; over-focus on Downtown, rather than large suburban shopping districts; high property taxes pay for more in-town than in the suburbs; regulations meant to protect in-town neighborhoods from students, but end up being burdensome to suburban homeowners; that there is an inherent prejudice against the suburbs within the Commission.
City dwellers retort that the city is the engine of growth; that the County must be governed as a whole (especially in regards to infrastructure and environmental regulations); and that many of our key services are affordable and efficient because of the density that the city brings.
The problem is that all of this is true. However, many Athenians (myself included do not remember and do not know about the fights over consolidation, and thus vote on different issues. I think this was the disconnect between Gwen’s and Spencer’s voters. And why many Spencer voters did not turn back out. Yes, Gwen may have known more about how the City/County works. She may have known how to make coalitions happen and get her vision through. But the Commission has been so successful in governing as a Unified Government that they County felt left out and left behind.
The County unified behind Nancy Denson, to represent their interests, while City voters did not feel like they needed to still defend their interests – either because they thought ACC had moved on from the City/County divide or because they thought ACC should move on, or they didn’t know about the divide in the first place – all reasons that hurt Gwen.
What happened 20 years ago still matters, even though ACC is more populated, and very different. The question is whether this fight will continue to matter for the next 20 years or whether the Commission can govern in such a way that can keep the City and County each happy, while still governing as a whole.
As seen on the National level, divided governments can end in stifling gridlock or in inspired compromise – it will be interesting to see how the new power structure in Athens plays out.