Sometimes, in order to make your government a better place, all you have to do is ask.
Students from the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism conducted an open records audit of Athens-Clarke County during the month of March. Students went to government offices and requested specific records like business licenses, police records, and minutes from board meetings. The class also conducted an audit of some University records including police incident records, employment contracts, and yearly budgets.
The audit was conducted through the Georgia Student Sunshine Audit program in conjunction with the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. The GFAF aims to advance “the cause of open government and freedom of information through education and advocacy.” Those who might be concerned about ACC transparency need not worry, the government agencies passed the test with a few minor exceptions. In a few cases, the records requested did not exist or required extra time to find. Most of the students had little difficulty in obtaining the physical records, though getting over their fears proved hard.
“The procedure to attain records always seemed intimidating to me,” wrote Grady student Zhiyang Yu, “but now that I’ve actually placed a request, I’ve got more confidence to procure these things in the future.”
The process can seem intimidating but citizens of Georgia have the right to request documentation from their governments.
Suha Zakiuddin knew more about the Freedom of Information Act than the officials handling the annual budget did.
“I learned that not everyone knows what the FOI act is all about,” wrote Zakiuddin. “In my experience, the person I spoke to needed help because he never had a records request before.”
The record handlers did not turn over information at all in the only complete request failure.
“I’ve requested records for stories in the past and never had a problem getting them,” wrote Robert Carnes, “but here I was unable to procure a copy or even see the original.”
“Sunshine” laws are open record laws set in place in order to promote openness between the government and the people. The laws stem from the Freedom of Information Act signed by President Johnson in 1966 and amended by President Clinton in 1996. The basic principal behind the laws places most of the responsibility for the records on the government. Specific documents must be filed correctly and be readily available for any citizen who requests them, not just journalists. If the record keepers refuse, citizens can write a letter describing the law that allows them to request such papers and why it is the government organization’s duty to turn them over. The state of Georgia is often considered to have one of the most lenient open record laws in the United States.
Before the students asked for the records, they were briefed by a representative from the GFAF on how to remain under the radar and not appear like they were conducting an audit. Students were encouraged to dress nicely but not mention they were students. Under the open records laws, one does not have to mention what their occupation is, their name, or even what they want the records for. The audit was used as an exercise for journalism students to learn how to request records easily. But the general public could benefit from this knowledge too, say Grady professors.
Open records are vital to a journalist’s job, says Grady College professor Barry Hollander. The general public does not ask for these types of records often but they need to know that they are available at any time, he said. Hollander pointed out a recent local case where Hustler Magazine requested the crime scene photos of a murdered University of Georgia graduate. The Senate and the House passed bills to prohibits the release of the photos depicting the headless body along with other lewd crime-scene photos and recordings from 911 calls that include suffering victims.
“Larry Flynt, merely by asking for them, and the idea that they might be in Penthouse was enough to make the legislature to overreact and close something that has always been open record,” he said. “What if there’s a suspicious death? And a journalist comes along and wonders ‘Maybe this person was killed by deputies or someone with power enough to get it closed.’ If you can no longer get the autopsy and images, it’s very hard to investigate and challenge the government’s decision on that case.”
By auditing the local government, the Grady students hope that it will keep ACC records open and available to the public. Not just because records are handy to have, but because it’s the law.
Jackie Roberts wipes the sweat from her brow, shifting the heavy stones she holds in her arms. Her driveway is coming along nicely; the volunteers from across Athens have been working for hours now in the sweltering heat. It is hard work to build a home, but for Roberts, just getting the permission to was half the battle.
Roberts, a University of Georgia employee, is the new owner of 155 Valleybrook Drive, a house that had been vehemently opposed by several members of her new Forest Heights neighborhood. Roberts is one of the many new homeowners in Athens that received help from the Athens Land Trust in order to make her dreams come true. The Athens Land Trust works to protect properties under conservation easements and offers affordable housing for Athens residents with low income.
Roberts’ home is a unique property for the land trust. Generally, the trust takes older properties and renovates them. Everything from siding and landscaping to plumbing and electrical get updated to code and, more recently, become more environmentally friendly. Roberts’ house was built from the ground up on a viciously sloping lot, creating many problems for the designers. The slope of the lot forced designers to work several unconventional floor plans into the design. The result was a very modern house that differed from the half-century old homes directly across the street.
All of the difficulties with the design were nothing compared to the opinions of the neighborhood. When the idea was proposed to build a slightly modern looking, environmentally friendly house in the older area, neighbors were concerned about how well it would fit in the area. The large amount of construction and constant flow of volunteers irked neighbors.
“It’s not like I couldn’t see what they were getting at,” said Roberts. “I’d be a be worried too if a really modern looking house showed up in my neighborhood with a lot of people making a lot of noise.”
The aesthetic value of the house, however, was the least of the neighborhood’s worries. Since Roberts bought the house through the land trust program, she pays far less than what she would normally have to for a house. Some neighbors worried that the house might drive down property values in the area.
“Some very mean-spirited things were said,” said Roberts. “They acted like we were just going to drain them of money and put up an eye-sore of a house just to spite them.”
Neighbor Abbey Griffin recalls several meetings being held about the issues surrounding Roberts’ house.
“There were times when it got ugly,” said Griffin. “People were talking about legal action against the trust and Jackie. There was even some stuff on the Internet about it.”
Requests to interview the organizers of these meetings were declined.
Members of the Athens Land Trust began contacting neighbors in attempts to outline the plan for the property and alleviate any fears that neighbors might have. According to volunteers, the neighborhood began to accept the property, especially after meeting with Roberts and her family. On one volunteer day, the family and land trust volunteers were landscaping when members of the neighborhood began to drop by and offer assistance.
“That’s when I knew everything was going to be alright,”said Roberts. “Some neighbors are still a little iffy about the house itself but they understand me and my kids. They know we wanted a home. That’s all I ask.”
The neighbors began expressing interest in the “green” aspects of the home, especially the rain chain. Instead of traditional gutters, a chain hangs from the edge of the house, collecting rain water and filtering it into a basin. The house itself was built for maximum positive environmental impact. The neighbors have latched on to some ideas from Roberts home and used them in their own lives.
“We made recycling bins like Jackie has,” said Griffin. “And we’re looking at her appliances and trying to get ideas for how our house could be more green.”
Roberts and her family will officially move into their new home on April 16, 2010 after a ribbon cutting ceremony held by the Athens Land Trust. The designers of the house, volunteers, Mayor Davison, and ACC commissioners are expected to be in attendance.
“I’m just so glad to see it finished,” said Roberts. “I can finally go home.”
Jeff Taylor has a winning smile, a firm handshake, and a bachelor’s degree in Economics. He is also legally homeless.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Taylor used to spend most of his nights on his friend’s couches, switching from one place to another in order to not be a burden. Then all but two of his friends moved away last year, leaving him stranded.
Taylor worked for two years with a marketing firm when he left college but was downsized when the economy hit the company hard. “I just walked into work, ran into my boss, and then had to walk right back out again,” said Taylor.
Now Taylor gets work when and where he can. He often does carpentry and landscaping work that pays fairly well but offer few opportunities. With fewer people buying homes or being able to afford landscaping, the industries are not faring well. Taylor often has to compete for work with experienced tradesmen who have been laid off themselves. He stands at home improvement stores alongside much older men, hoping that someone needs their grass cut or house painted today. There are good days but most of the time, Taylor ends up with nothing more than a sunburn.
Athens’ current unemployment rate is 10.3%, slightly higher than the national rate of 9.7% according to U.S. Department of Labor. Taylor has noticed a lot more college grads around Athens taking small jobs in an effort to pay off crippling student loans. It’s a chain reaction that Taylor sees causing a lot of problems, losing his job ended up costing him a lot more than he thought.
“I couldn’t pay off my credit cards so I couldn’t rent a place if I wanted to,” he said. “And I don’t have a good single place to eat or shower or make phone calls in order to try and find a job. I’m stuck spinning my wheels.”
With many jobs already taken, people like Taylor are turning to part-time and low wage jobs to make ends meet. Some young graduates moved back home to their parents’ houses after being unable to find a job. Juliet Cimbers says that pride kept her from making that decision, despite the small amount of financial help it may have brought.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to go back there and sit in the same bedroom I had as a child,” said Cimbers, “Not after all the work I did.”
Cimbers now takes pictures of jewelry and writes descriptions of the pieces for her employer who sells them on eBay.
“I’m lucky to get paid at all some days,” said Cimbers, who works on commission from the jewelry sales. “I went to college. I got good grades. And I write stuff on eBay so I can pay my rent this month. I just can’t believe it. I thought my education would be worth more. Guess not, huh?”
Cimbers is hopeful that the new measures put in place by the Obama administration will help her find a job that will allow her to start paying off her student loans. Obama signed a bill in mid-March aimed at increasing hiring rates at companies by offering them $18 billion in tax breaks. Businesses that hire people who have been unemployed for at least 60 days will be exempt from paying a 6.2 % Social Security payroll tax through December. Employers will receive a $1,000 credit if new workers stay on the job a full year.
Taylor is not quite as optimistic. Fewer people have money to spend, he reasons, and less money to spend means that companies still won’t hire because no one is able to buy their products and services. Cimbers disagrees with that reasoning. People will start to miss the finer things in life, she says, and they will begin to spend a little bit more than in the past few years.
Until then, however, Cimbers and Taylor continue their day to day survival, hindered by massive debt, low wages, and a bleak looking economy.
“It’s going to get better,” says Cimbers. “It’s just got to.”
It was a quick and easy night at the Mayor and Commission meeting on Thursday, March 18, 2010. The relatively short meeting covered several small issues put forth by the commission for consideration for an April 6th meeting to determine each item’s fate.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a night with no public imput,” said Mayor Pro-Temp Kathy Hoard who sat in for Mayor Heidi Davidson.
A great deal of the meeting was dedicated to the Annual Action Plan for Human and Economic Development for the 2011 fiscal year. In the past year, funds were allocated to 21 projects, costing about $315,000. With the county still having to account for budget cuts in an already weak economy, members of the commission questioned how the HED money was being spent and if possible, how little can be used in order to maintain a healthy budget.
“When we’re expecting real diligence on the part of our non-profit partners, would it not be reasonable to say that we should try to spend as few dollars ourselves?” asked Commissioner Kelly Girtz. “Many non-profit directors have asked how they can use their money best and I think we should shine the light on ourselves in the same way.”
Other topics included a discussion on a proposed special district overlay for Milledge Ave. which would remove requirements surrounding the fraternities and sororities that own houses along the street. Under current law, the Greek organizations are required to submit special use reviews each year to maintain their property along Milledge. Additions to the houses such as porches and small sheds have to go through a long approval process, costing both time and money.
Tony McGonagle, a member of Phi Kappa Theta, voiced his hopes that the measure would pass with relative ease.
“It’s never been that big of a deal to those of us in the house but I know it does involve a lot of red tape and the less of that we have, the better,” said McGonagle. “I’ve heard of some frats that just wanted to do some minor stuff to the house but ended up having to wait for approval from the government to come through.”
Also addressed was the issue of sidewalk construction along major business corridors in the downtown area. The commission agreed that this issue needed to be dealt with swiftly and even proposed a small addition to a project in order to connect two existing pieces of sidewalk.
Citizens are highly encouraged to attend the meeting on April 6th when these measures will be voted on.
Getting around Athens may become a lot easier after tonight’s mayor and commission meeting. The group is set to approve preliminary construction plans for several sidewalks and crosswalks in downtown Athens.
A number of sidewalks in the city are inconsistently maintained or were poorly planned. In some areas, a sidewalk does not even exist, despite the presence of bus stops and businesses. Instead, well-worn footpaths mark the landscape, frustrating property owners and pedestrians alike.
“There’s no consistency at all with the sidewalks,” said Rebecca Kutch, an avid walker. “One minute you’re walking on a nice flat surface, the next you’re tramping through someone’s front yard.”
High traffic areas such as Prince Ave. and Barber St. have benefited from previous sidewalk construction plans. Broken cement, poor drainage, and no wheelchair accessibility caused many headaches for pedestrians in the area. After a meeting about the situation, construction began on the most problematic places. Soon enough, sidewalks appeared where there were none before and handicap accessible ramps were in place.
“It seems like such a simple fix,” said Kutch, “but it takes a lot of fist shaking and shouting to get anyone to pay attention to how important these things are.”
One of the main issues surrounding the sidewalks is one of safety. Without proper paths, pedestrians are forced to walk through yards or on roads, increasing the likelihood of traffic accidents. This becomes especially dangerous during low visibility times at dawn and dusk which are popular with exercising runners.
Proper sidewalks also cut down on jaywalking deaths. National data from various traffic research shows that up to 58% of jaywalking deaths occur in areas with little or poor sidewalk infrastructure. On of the hurdles the board will face with the construction of the new sidewalks is the inconvenience of pre-existing objects such as lampposts, fire hydrants, and signs that must be moved and replaced before the concrete can be poured.
The mayor and commission meet tonight on the issue at 7 p.m. inside City Hall. The meeting is open to the public.
Ryan Lewis grimaces as he packs a mound of donated toiletries into a box at a charity event he organized for homeless women. The Athens, Ga. graphic designer is not angry, however. The man who desperately wants to help those in need is suffering from kidney stones, without health insurance.
Lewis is one of the estimated 46.3 million Americans who lack proper health insurance as reported by the United States Census Bureau. He has chronic kidney stones that he cannot afford to have removed. So instead, Lewis suffers through them while he works on behalf of the Washington Street Liberation Army, an activist group he co-founded with Andy Rusk. He wanted a way to help people who didn’t have clothing, housing, or, in like in his case, adequate health insurance.
The WSLA is primarily based on the idea of “costumed philanthropy,” said Lewis. Members often don berets and costumes as they gather donations for Athens’ neediest citizens. After the actual work is done, the group will often watch cult movies such as “The Princess Bride” at their unofficial base, Cine. These are usually followed by a concert featuring groups sympathetic to the WSLA’s causes. Lewis’ own rock group, Grape Soda, can often be found rocking out alongside groups like Bambara, wearing comical military regalia.
“It’s like Monty Python running the Peace Corps,” said Lewis.
The members of the WSLA try to be active in the most pressing issues facing downtown Athens such as poverty and homelessness. In the past few months, the group has held several events aimed at gathering supplies for the homeless such as coats and blankets for the winter months and toiletries for women.
Building on the belief that giving back doesn’t mean giving in, Lewis claims that the primary aim of the WSLA is to get citizens involved in local social and economic issues.
“A lot of people complain about not knowing what is going on in local government and certain regulations,” said Lewis, “but I have learned that this is generally because folks ‘feel’ too busy to get involved. I know that was true of me until this summer when I finally decided to do something about it.”
Back then, it meant rounding up people like Rusk to create a joyful activist group. Now, Lewis devotes some of his graphic design talents to the WSLA, drawing up posters, buttons, and logos for the group. He organizes and advertises events for the group, taking advantage of new trends in social media, using resources such as Facebook and Twitter to gather and distribute information. Any person affiliated with the WSLA on social networks can expect to be sent several links a day from Rusk and Lewis to articles and videos they find interesting, many of them politically slanted.
“I have consciously built my ‘friend’ list on various social media platforms to include a good range of trusted folks from various age brackets in town,” said Lewis. “This way I can post questions about things and count on getting a good range of responses.”
One of Lewis’ own videos became a minor viral hit after getting passed around the social networks. In it, Lewis asks Representative Paul Broun, a Republican, a few questions about health care at a meeting in Athens, Ga. Lewis brought a bag of some of his kidney stones to the meet to make a point. He was eventually turned away. The video caught the attention of major news outlets, something that Lewis is very proud of. Health care has been the all too literal thorn in his side.
But some critics of the group have claimed that it focuses too much on a “liberal agenda.” Kaylen Smith, a freelance writer who identifies as Republican, said that “the WSLA should stop trying to attack Republican candidates and just focus on doing good for the whole community, not just those who agree with them.”
But Lewis does not intend to back down anytime soon.
“We take blankets to the homeless and collect food for the food pantry,” he said. “Not really that liberal or conservative. We are vocal about our political beliefs though. We’re not communist, but we like to parody that belief that we’re these left-wing nuts.”
For Lewis and the WSLA, it’s all about making a change for the better. Lewis hopes one day that everyone can have food, shelter, and health care. But mostly, he hopes that the crazy antics of the WSLA help raise awareness.
“If I can help give a political and social voice to the weirdo community I so love (and am a member of), then I will be happy.