Athens Board of Elections Meeting Reviews Peabody Awards Event

Athens-Clarke County’s Board of Elections reported in a recent meeting the outcome of the voting registration booth at the University of Georgia’s Peabody Award event March 30.

Students arrived in the Tate Theater to get a sneak peak of HBO-produced shows and movies including early previews of the season premieres for Game of Thrones, Veep and the film Silicon Valley.

“We got a call from somebody with the Peabody Awards,” said Administrative Assistant Wanda Raley. “They called and asked that we set up a voter registration booth with their Veep presentation.”

The Board of Elections set up the booth at the event to tie in with Veep, a political comedy show. The booth attracted a handful of registrations during the event.

“A lot of people thought we were a prop,” Raley said. “But we did get a lot of comments.”

The regular monthly meeting of the board was held Tuesday. Supervisor of Elections and Voter Registration Gail Schrader met with board members Charles Knapper, E. Walter Wilson, and Alison McCullick for a brief update on the voters of the county.

According to an activities report produced by the board, 59 percent of citizens within Athens are registered voters. This percent accounts for about 57,000 citizens who are at least 18 years of age.

In the month of March, 149 new voters were successfully registered, according to the report.

The board estimates that 70 percent of the citizens of Athens are eligible to register, meaning around 10,000 people may vote but for whatever reason do not.

Schrader presented another issue involving the county’s electronic voting equipment. The LED monitors require batteries that have an average lifespan of four to five years. Schrader asked the board to approve funds to replace the batteries early – before they potentially burn out on an important election day.

Knapper, Wilson and McCullick all agreed to approve the funds. The board has a budget of about $21,000 according to their internal report.

The Board of Elections is responsible for serving citizens “by being fair, nondiscriminatory and informed on all election laws and legislative changes” affecting the people, according to their official website. As such, the board is also responsible for finding and stopping instances of voter fraud.

Schrader described a situation that the office had discovered involving around 20 people sharing the same Alps Road address. On investigation, the location turned out to be a delivery address for P.O. Boxes.

Schrader went on to explain that she believes it to be an error on the part of the voters in filling out registration forms. The form asks for the person’s residential address, and she believes some mistakenly placed a delivery address in the space.

“We just want to be proactive to have something if they want to come to the board,” Schrader said.

The board is free to challenge these voters at any time, however the notification would have to be sent to the Alps Road address, and it is unclear whether this would be an effective means of contacting these people.

The board would also be unable to change any labels on the registration form itself, as these changes are carried out by the state.

In other business, the board is doing away with hard copies of voter information stored in their offices. Past voter information will now be kept digitally. To facilitate this change, the office will begin auditing their records.

“I think it’s going to be a really good change,” Schrader said.

Raley, who is helping to carry out the audit, agrees about the benefits of digital over physical.

“I actually think the process is working well,” Raley said. “It makes the person entering the data be more careful, because you know someone is going to come right after and look at it.”

Over the course of March, the elections office picked up $525 in fines from voters.

The meeting concluded with no unfinished business on the agenda. The next meeting will be May 12.

“This office is hugely well-run,” Thompson said after the meeting, explaining that despite few citizens attend the sessions, the board carries out its business effectively.

“It’s pretty quiet now,” Knapper said in reference to voting issues the board is dealing with. “Next year there will be issues to deal with, but this year has been pretty slow.”

Freeganism in Athens?

By: Patrick Adcock

It is broad daylight and Charles Bond is assessing the situation in front of him; he’s been here before. Four trash containers sit against the back wall of the parking lot behind a local grocery store. Four chances to hit the jackpot.

Bond has spoken with the employees of this particular store before. They would prefer that any scavenging take place after dusk, when there are fewer customers coming and going and so that day-to-day operations aren’t disturbed. It’s not dusk, but there aren’t too many people around either.

Unperturbed, Bond hops up onto the nearest container. The results are disappointing; the bin is empty.

Bond moves on to the next bin. He pulls back the lid and is immediately hit with the smell of rotting vegetables. This bin is obviously a no-go. It’s not a surprising situation; sometimes one has to go home empty-handed.

The third bin is opened to reveal more vegetables – fresh this time.

This is the experience of Freegans, a subset of people who “look outside of capitalistic systems” to obtain their food according to the movement’s website. This can include growing their own vegetables in gardens, but most commonly it means digging through trash thrown out by grocery stores.

Grocery stores have an obligation to sell fresh food to customers. The result is that a lot of food gets thrown out, either because it was damaged in shipping or has passed its legal sell-by date. A lot of this food is still edible or can be used for other purposes.

Freegans see this situation as an opportunity. Dumpster diving is not a new phenomenon; however, this is the first time divers have been part of a larger movement. For them, supporting Freeganism has a moral element.

According to the official website of the movement, “After years of trying to boycott products from unethical corporations, we found that no matter what we bought we ended up supporting something deplorable.”

Many have thus turned to diving in order to obtain the necessary food supplies while in turn not spending money on companies that they feel don’t have the customers’ best interests at heart.

A problem comes with diving, however. The legality around the practice is a murky at best. For example, there is no federal law that labels diving as illegal. At the same time, state laws can sometimes prohibit the action.

In the case of Georgia, diving is not illegal. Trespassing and entering private property, however, will result in a fine for the offender. Even diving in unmarked bins could result in being questioned by police.

University of Georgia Police Chief Jimmy Williamson is careful not to condone diving, but also acknowledges that nothing can be done about it.

“It’s legal in Athens, but a lot of problems can still come from it.”

There are also serious health and safety issues, the least of which can be broken glass shards littered on the bottom of some trash bins.

These are the issues facing Charles Bond as he rummages through the bins of the back parking lot of a local grocer.

Bond is a 21-year-old student of bioengineering at UGA. He lives off-campus on a plot of land that he helps to farm as part of an agriculture group. Chickens wander his backyard where he also grows his own vegetables. Bond plays drums for several local bands.

About once a month, Bond goes diving. He has a few hotspots, such as the Earthfare on Milledge and the Kroger on Baxter. These places, he says, are relatively nice to divers and will allow them to take refuse as long as they don’t disturb daytime operations.

“Earthfare is the best,” says Bond. “I’ve heard about Trader Joe’s but I’ve never been there to look.”

Bond goes diving about once a month and has so far never been caught by either management or curious police officers. Store managers for Earthfare referred this writer to the PR department for comment on this story; however, the department never returned any emails or phone calls.

Some stores will put up signs prohibiting diving, which will result in trouble for offenders. There are also others methods for to stores hoping to deter people digging through their trash.

“In a block of buildings, because it’s not easy to get around to the back, it makes it feel more sketchy,” said Bond.

A good piece of advice for all divers is to ask someone in the store about their policies around the practice before engaging. It’s ultimately the store’s prerogative to allow or disallow diving into their own trash containers.

Bond doesn’t care much for any stigma associated with people who dive. Many people assume that Dumpster divers physically dive headfirst into trash. Bond has a technique of balancing against the side of the container so that he can reach inside without actually entering the Dumpster.

“If you are adventurous and you like free stuff, then diving is for you,” said Bond.

Bond does not eat anything that he obtains from diving, however. He uses the vegetables he obtains to feed his chickens. He is also not too enamored with the term “Freegan.”

“It sounds like a mixture of foodie, animal rights, pseudo-Marxist kind of stuff,” said Bond. “I went to Occupy, so I’m kind of tired of people using that rhetoric and not really doing anything about it.”

He hasn’t seen any evidence of the Freegan movement arriving in force in Athens, either.

“You just put a name on it and then people will attribute more value to it than there actually is,” said Bond. He is a supporter of urban gardening, but for him that is far different from a loose movement of Dumpster divers.

Bond says that the Freegan movement can gain publicity by advertising their label but it would be more meaningful if the movement was actually accomplishing something tangible.

Despite all this, Bond says he will definitely be diving again soon.

“Dig deep, don’t be afraid to get dirty, but try to stay physically outside of the trash container.”

Fewer Fires in Athens Redefines the Role of Firefighter

By: Patrick Adcock

The call came at 10:50 P.M. Firefighters rushed to get suited-up and piled on the truck as the siren began to blare. School alarms require a quick response, but these men train for years to get to a location as quickly as possible no matter who is in need.

They arrived to find students already lined up on the curb outside of the dorms by the bus stop. The flashing lights created briefly illuminated silhouettes of the crowd on the sides of the surrounding buildings. A group of firemen locate the smoke-filled common area that was the source of the alarm.

This is the reality of college towns and the firefighters that serve them. A change occurred in the last forty years in America – the reported number of fires requiring an emergency response fell from 3.3 million per year in the 1970s to 1.2 million in 2013 based on a report from the National Fire Protection Association. Yet there are now more working firefighters employed by local governments than ever before.

That change is reflected in Athens, where fewer fires are occurring in comparison to previous decades. Now, the fire department responds to around 3,000 calls in a calendar year. The population of Athens, however, continues to grow. Between 2010 and 2013, the population grew by 4%, and with urbanization that trend is expected to continue according to census data. This trend shows that more people living in Athens are causing fewer fires than previous generations.

University of Georgia Police Chief Jimmy Williamson has an idea for what led to such a dramatic decline in fires.

“It’s the building codes,” said Williamson. “We have much better building codes today than we did years ago.”

Buildings must now conform to standardized construction practices such as using fireproof materials. Today’s citizens are also more aware of fire prevention methods, and firefighters themselves train hard to effectively put out conflagrations.

On the UGA Police Department’s website, data can be found about fires responded to on campus since 2009. A large proportion are accidental, such as students leaving food cooking in microwaves or letting clothes get too close to lit candles.

Arson is also a common cause of fire responses on the UGA campus. Students sometimes set papers or posters on walls alight intentionally. Alarm systems are toyed with and burned. If the fire department arrives to find that an alarm has been pulled intentionally, law enforcement is notified.

The reality is that today’s firefighters are responding to just as many false alarms as real fires, and unfortunately there is no way for them to tell which alarms are actual fires. However, more firefighters are working today than at any point in the past.

The National Fire Protection Association estimates that there are 350,000 firefighters on the payroll as of 2012 in America. In 1986, there were 240,000 paid firefighters.

There are more firefighters fighting fewer fires than previous generations.

The Athens-Clarke County Fire Company was first incorporated in 1850 and was located in a building that is now part of the Classic Center. Several years later, the first municipal fire department was formed, initially employing 15 firefighters.

According to the Athens-Clarke County website, there are now 190 personnel working for the fire department here spread across nine stations and one training facility. Each station has their own fire engine along with a handful of other support vehicles for the county.

Firefighters here serve many roles however, not just in responding to fires.

Kyle Hendrix, assistant chief of operations with the fire department, points out that a few of the fire department’s trucks carry ropes and rescue equipment, such as the Jaws of Life. Fire responders can deal with vehicle collisions, rescue situations and all manner of other emergencies.

Hendrix, however, does not see firefighters as primarily medical responders. In an interview with the Red and Black, Hendrix said, “The fire department historically has never been a medical services provider.”

Additionally, the fire department is responsible for putting on show and tells at the University and other places around town. Part of the reason the number of reported fires has declined is the fact that the average citizen today knows more about fire prevention than previously.

While there are more firefighters employed today than ever before and fewer fires being reported than ever before, the fire department stills serves an integral role in Athens life. With their other activities and responsibilities, firefighters are also working more than in previous years, and their efforts are essential to keeping fire rates low. However, the image of a firefighter rushing into a burning building is not the face of their everyday work anymore.

Remember that call that came at night from the East Campus dorms of UGA? Firefighters arrived in the common room kitchen to find that the cause of the smoke that set off the alarm – a batch of over-baked cookies forgotten in the oven by a student.

20th Anniversary of the Classic Center Brings Reflection on Community Impact

By: Patrick Adcock

Downtown Athens would not be the same place it is today without the Classic Center.

This year, the center celebrates its 20th anniversary of serving the community. For the past two decades, the center put on events and shows for all ages and became the nucleus for large-scale entertainment in Athens and northeast Georgia.

According to a 2012-2013 economic impact report carried out by IMPLAN, a group that provides economic impact modeling data, the center brought in 360,000 attendees for 1,275 event days that year. This activity resulted in $65 million in economic impact for Athens.

Overnight visitors to the town spend, on average, $277. 19 per day and 9% of the hotel rooms in the surrounding area are related to convention business.

Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols came to the center in 2013 as part of his Clean Fuel Roadshow. The spacious halls allowed for many people to come, and the driveway in the front displayed several eco-cars.

The Classic Center is a big deal for the economy of Athens and the visitors who use the center’s rooms, but the center has not always operated at the same level it does today.

According to the official website of the center, the oldest portion of the center dates back to 1912 and was originally known as Fire Hall No. 1. Several decades ago, it was the town’s fire station.

In 1987, the local government created the Civic Center Study Committee to decide what type of public assembly area would best serve the interests of the citizens. The end result became the Classic Center, and construction began in 1994.

The original building plan would have demolished Fire Hall, but the community spoke up for its preservation.

In 1995, Paul Cramer, the executive director of the center, opened the doors to the public. The first production put on by the theatre was the musical “Cats.”

“The Classic Center has grown tremendously in the past 20 years,” said Cramer, “from one event on the books in 1995 to now 700 events per year.”

During that time, the Classic Center grew with the community of Athens.

Several expansions over the years, most recently in 2013, allowed even more events to be put on for even more attendees. The area of the many rooms and halls now totals 500,000 square feet.

The expansions were the solutions to trouble brewing for the center. If they didn’t expand, the community would outgrow them and the center would gradually lose significance. At the same time, the town of Athens eyes any grand developments suspiciously, hoping to retain its small town origins.

Marketing Manager Elizabeth Austin is pleased with the way things have turned out.

“It was really important to expand when we did,” said Austin. “Certain groups that we serve, such as the North Georgia United Methodists, were beginning to outgrow us.”

“Another one of the great benefits of expanding has been our newfound ability to put on sporting events,” said Austin.

In the end, the people decided to continue funding Classic Center expansions because of what the center was able to give back to the town.

The Classic Center also enjoys a close relationship with the University of Georgia. Sporting teams such as UGA’s club ice hockey team, the Ice Dogs, use the center for tournaments. The Classic City Rollergirls also frequently make use to the center’s arena.

In addition to sporting events, the center’s partnership with UGA allows Broadway shows to come to Athens that would be too costly for either to hire alone.

Thinking forward to 2015, Austin sees a shift in the kinds of events on offer.

“With the expansions, the sheer size of the Classic Center has become an asset for us to put on bigger events while still serving the core Athens community.”

SPLOST, the special-purpose local-option sales tax, funded the 2013 expansion as well as all previous expansions. In Georgia, counties have the ability to levy a sales tax specifically for the development of parks, roads and buildings such as the Classic Center. SPLOST matters to the center, because the retained earnings from the events are relatively small.

In the same IMPLAN study, the projected earnings for fiscal year 2014 are $6.6 million in revenue. Projected expenses of $6.3 million closely match that number. The remaining $300,000 in retained earnings goes toward maintaining the facilities. The Classic Center must continually reinvest in itself in order to continue putting on events.

Looking forward into 2015, there are no more expansions coming down the pipeline for now. For the center’s 20th anniversary, the team plans to put on an event in the spring to make the most of the outdoor pavilion.

Announcements of the time and date for that event will be revealed in the next few months.

Cramer looks back on his time with the center with fondness and sees a positive future ahead.

“I believe we will continue to invest in tourism, expand our entertainment offerings in a way that exceeds expectations of our guest, benefitting the local and regional communities and reap those benefits for years to come.”