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 teargas, 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.

A Solemn Day of Reflection

It is with a heavy heart that I write this while processing the staggering news that Jerry NeSmith passed away unexpectedly Saturday night. Jerry was a caring human being who identified as a servant leader and worked tirelessly throughout his lifetime in many capacities to embody that spirit.

We did not always agree on the details of how to advance our society toward justice and peace. Yet I’ve always understood Jerry to be someone deeply committed to bettering the lives of people while striving for a healthier planet. The rapid outpouring of love and sadness from across our community makes clear how great a loss his passing is and how many lives Jerry touched.

Electoral politics generate conversations built around contrast, and through that discourse we grow individually and collectively. Yet the sharp focus on contrast in the run-up to election day often sits at odds with the recognition that we as human beings contain multitudes and navigate this complex world in a nuanced fashion. I believe Jerry dug into that nuance time and again as he worked within complex systems for the people he endeavored to serve. Tomorrow is election day, and I regret that I will never get to share the conversation over a drink with him that I had envisioned would follow its conclusion all this time. I know he would have welcomed such a conversation and that we would have continued to engage each other meaningfully, despite our differences, because that is how he lived and worked. Sadly, we will not get to do that.

That sadness, however, is profoundly outweighed by the grief of Jerry’s wife, Farol, his children Jason and Noel, and their family and friends. Jerry’s life touched thousands of people, and my deepest sympathies and thoughts are with them at this time. I hope those reading this will offer them support and space to process this in private as they need.

Many people are reaching out with questions about what this means for tomorrow’s election and for the District 6 Commission seat. ACC Attorney Judd Drake is currently working on answers to these questions, and we anticipate having a clearer understanding soon. Our always uncertain future currently includes some uncertainty about my formal role in this community. However, there is time for us to figure that out, and such ambiguity at this time pales in comparison to the certain loss suffered by Jerry’s untimely passing. At this time I ask that we all honor the life of Jerry NeSmith and the grief of his loved ones.

We will refrain from further campaign activity until tomorrow’s election results are tallied and we have clearer understanding from Attorney Drake about how those results relate to the future of District 6. As of yesterday morning, we have pulled all ads on social media and canceled our outreach efforts (canvassing, phonebanking, texting, etc.). This is now a time to reflect and to support others’ efforts for real change.

It remains critically important to vote tomorrow. There are many contested races on the ballot for the voters of District 6, especially in the Democratic primary. If you’ve yet to vote early or by mail, please make sure to vote tomorrow. Please also encourage others to do the same.

More information on where and when to vote can be found here. If you remain undecided on some of the other contests, I recommend reviewing the voter guides published by Athens for Everyone and Athens Politics Nerd, who published a nonpartisan voter guide for judges and Commission races and a separate voter guide for the Democratic primary.

Beyond electoral politics, we have an immense amount of work to do. Saturday’s powerful rally downtown and subsequent demonstration in College Square exemplified everything that makes me proud to call Athens my home. Whichever way the days ahead unfold, I will continue to stand and walk with the people of Athens in the long struggle for economic and racial justice.

With love in solidarity,
Jesse Houle

The Red and Black covers Jesse’s campaign!

“Houle has spent the past 12 years in Athens making music, working at the non-profit Nuçi’s Space and fighting for progressive causes. Houle said they are running because they love Athens, see problems with incumbent Commissioner Jerry NeSmith and have the experience and leadership skills to enact progressive policies and change.”

Read more…

Campaign Kickoff Party

In case you missed it, or if you just want to relive it again and again – the video of the campaign kick off party is up! Go! Go now!

Open Conversations: Connectivity and Green Space

As folks reach out with questions and concerns, I would like to share correspondence on the website. This is for transparency, accountability, and, most of all, to grow the involvement of others in our dialogue.

We all stand to learn from each other. Furthermore, our best ideas and best chances of implementing them will come from collective understanding and effort. As the platform states, it is a living document. It will evolve as our conversation continues and the movement grows!

Hi Jesse,

I live in District 6 (quadrant D to be specific). I am excited to have the opportunity to have a new commissioner for our district. I am encouraged by the progressive growth of the mayor and commission office in the past couple of years, and I hope that this trend continues with the replacement of Jerry NeSmith (out with the old and in with the new as they say).

While I think that issues that affect the entire county are important, I have very specific concerns with my district area. My number one concern is connectivity. Specifically, I would like to see a sidewalk on Mitchell Bridge Road. This is not just a self-serving interest, as I currently do not live in a neighborhood that abuts this road.

The only park that is accessible (Beechaven doesn’t count.. and is another topic I am passionate about) to the West Side of town is Ben Burton Park. Currently the only way to travel to and from Ben Burton park is by vehicle. There are at least 5 neighborhoods on Mitchell Bridge who’s citizens would have to get in their car and drive to the park in order to access it.

My son attends Timothy Road Elementary. He is in the 5th grade and will be graduating, so this also is no longer relevant to my concerns, BUT if a sidewalk were placed on Mitchell Bridge, this would provide access for children to walk or ride bikes to school. As it is now they HAVE to take a bus or be driven to a school that for some is less than half a mile away. This is ridiculous.

While I realize this is not a campaign concern or the most pressing matter at hand, I do hope that if you are elected you will consider making connectivity a priority. I believe that we should provide a safe route for people to travel regardless of their ability to drive or own a car.

Since I mentioned Beechaven, I would love for this park to be made a priority. It is a shame that the county owns this property and beautiful park that no one can access. A bridge and parking lot across the river is all that is necessary to make it into a destination for west side citizens.

Good luck to you, I wish you well.

Thanks!
[District 6 Resident] Tremont Ct.

Hi [neighbor]!

To start, I want to reiterate my appreciation for you reaching out as well as how glad I am to know you’re excited about our campaign! I want to follow up with a bit more detail, though I’d still enjoy talking with you if you’d like to call or meet in person.

I certainly agree that we need more sidewalks, trails, and bike lanes in most of our district’s neighborhoods including and especially the main arteries along Mitchell Bridge and Tallassee. Public transportation, cycling and walkability are fundamental to healthy communities, as are, I believe, green spaces and trail networks. Too often we see the maintenance and expansion of automobile-centric infrastructure happen at the expense of this.

To share some of my personal background on these matters: I’m proud to have spent a couple years on the steering committee of Complete Streets Athens, an advocacy organization that was dedicated to alternative transportation networks countywide. We lobbied for measures that seeded a lot of what has since become the Athens in Motion Bike-Pedestrian Master Plan, though, like any good thing, I and that group can not take credit entirely. Parallel to that, my work with others’ campaigns and Athens for Everyone has included a strong emphasis on the same, especially during the formulation of the most recent list of T-SPLOST projects.

I intend to approach work on the commission much as I have community organizing which is to say it’s a collaborative effort. I think we stand to gain the most by sharing our insights and working together to make things happen. To that end, I’m not sure how much of this is familiar to you, but I imagine that someone with your passion and experience has insights to share and may very well know even more than I about what is already in the works. Following are some of my thoughts and my understanding to date.

Years of planning and gathering community-wide input have given us the Athens in Motion Master Plan and, by my understanding, it is both a solid plan for building the infrastructure we need as well as a well-developed plan that has centered equity and areas of greatest need in its prioritization structure. Athens in Motion divides its project lists into three tiers, the first of which is already being enacted and has funding from the recent T-SPLOST, among other places. It includes Tallassee Road. My understanding is that Mitchell Bridge Road is in tier two, and tier two projects will begin to be acted upon in approximately six years with priorities to be determined at that time. It makes sense to me for a variety of reasons, such as the ones you cited, that Mitchell Bridge be a high priority when tier two is addressed, because when tier two is addressed, there will be some deliberation over which specific projects get focused on first.

Beyond Athens in Motion, I believe we need to enact stronger policies regarding our transportation infrastructure. For example, our existing Complete Streets Resolution should be used to guide ordinances that have more teeth in requiring sidewalks and bike lanes (and green space) when infrastructure projects such as scheduled repaving come through and when new developments are built. This will help us expedite connectivity countywide, though I see Athens in Motion as the way forward to ensure all that piecemeal work will actually be connected in a way that’s sensible and equitable.

As an aside, I think it’s worth noting that these sorts of stronger policies and ordinances with “teeth” are needed all over the place in Athens. We’ve seen a lot of encouraging resolutions passed over the years, including recent resolutions supporting immigrants, acknowledging the legacy of racism, and committing to 100% clean and renewable energy. However those pieces of paper cease to become funding, law, or material change without political will to follow through. One way to ensure that progressive policies envisioned in these resolutions are seen through, even as faces on the Commission change, is to enact ordinances and policies that will direct the ACC government’s departments in its work for years to come.

Finally with regard to Beechaven, I have less knowledge about this tract specifically and hope you can enlighten me. My understanding is that the Greenway Master Plan, which overlaps with Athens in Motion, includes measures to build the kinds of trails you’re referencing in that area specifically, which (correct me if I’m wrong) is the largely wooded tract across the river from your neighborhood? However, I don’t know specifics on what the planned trails/infrastructure there will look like or the timeline for when they will be installed.

I would love to put our heads together and then reach out to folks to get more answers as needed on all of the above. I wish we could rewind the clock and build a less autocentric infrastructure from the get-go, but I feel optimistic about our ability to make things right on a fairly reasonable timeline. I’m also all ears on ways to make things happen smarter and faster.

With gratitude and solidarity,

Jesse Houle

Open Conversations: Costs and Where I’m At

As folks reach out with questions and concerns, I would like to share correspondence on the website. This is for transparency, accountability, and, most of all, to grow the involvement of others in our dialogue.

We all stand to learn from each other. Furthermore, our best ideas and best chances of implementing them will come from collective understanding and effort. As the platform states, it is a living document. It will evolve as our conversation continues and the movement grows!

I looked at your website. The things you are proposing sound good but expensive. How will this affect my property tax? Which part of the district do you live in?

[District 6 Resident] Westwood Hills

Hi [neighbor],

Thanks for reaching out! Please accept my apologies for the delay in my reply.

I’m glad that the platform resonates with you and am interested in talking with you more by phone or in person if you like. Costs of proposals vary, of course, depending on which we’re talking about. Some things on my platform will actually save us money while others will require investment. I’m curious to learn which proposals concern you with regard to cost. Similarly, how people contribute to community funds through taxes and fees can vary widely depending on their personal circumstances. In order to fully answer your questions, it will help to better understand your personal circumstances.

As you may already know, there are ways for us to save money as well as generate revenue beyond just property taxes. I believe a lot can be gained by looking into fees that we can leverage to get large companies and the University to pay their fair share. There are also large sums of money in the current budget that I would advocate for reallocating. Finally, a proactive approach to grant-seeking and collaboration with other institutions will provide us opportunities to pay for some of the proposals on my platform.

When it comes to considering property taxes, as with anything budget related, there are two things that will always take priority for me. 1. Safeguarding against gentrification will remain at the forefront of any housing policies I advocate for. Affordability, therefore, will always be paramount for me and key to that is making sure we don’t levy taxes (or fees) in a manner that furthers financial strain and displacement. 2. I take very seriously the commitment to bring local government out of City Hall and engage in a meaningful way in our district on the neighborhood and personal level. This is an example of where the participatory budgeting element of my platform is especially relevant. Discussions around budgeting, taxation, and the prioritizing of programs will be an ongoing, collaborative effort that evolves over time.

I live in the Kenney Ridge neighborhood, which is down Tallassee Road on Three Oaks Drive.

I hope you enjoyed the sunshine over the weekend and that this week is going well for you! If you’d like to talk more, please give me a call, and leave a message with your phone number if I miss you.

In community,
Jesse

We’ve Got Pictures!!!

Thank you to all our speakers and volunteers who made the Campaign kickoff party such a vibrant success! Here are some photos of camaraderie and celebration!

FULL Interview with Alexia Ridley!

If you want to hear my full interview with Alexia, click here! I really enjoyed talking with her, and hope you enjoy hearing it! As always, if you have questions, reach out via Facebook or Twitter (@JesseforAthens)!

I also wanted to thank everyone who came to our Campaign Kick-Off Party! I couldn’t have imagined it going better!