The portrait of a true American

Christopher Anderson is a true American.

This does not mean he eats apple pie and tosses a baseball around in his backyard after every meal. This does not mean he has the Lee Greenwood ode to patriotism “God Bless the USA” blaring through his headphones 24/7. This does not mean he dresses up as the 1980’s cartoon icon G.I. Joe every casual Friday.

Anderson is a true American because he holds fast to one of this country’s most honored tenets: helping those unable to help themselves.

Emma Lazarus’s 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus,” which is engraved on a bronze plaque mounted inside the Statue of Liberty, the one symbol synonymous with all American ideals, concludes with the plea “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” The Declaration of Independence proclaims the United States as a nation which fights for and defends “liberty and justice for all.”

The American shores have historically been the safe haven for those who have been discarded by others as “refuse.” The United States has long been considered the land of opportunity, a place where even exiles can convert themselves into valuable, contributing members of functional society. Those who call the country home have built that home as part of a tradition of redeeming themselves and their people.

Today, Anderson works tirelessly to carry on that very tradition.

He serves on the Board of Directors for the Athens Justice Project, an initiative with the mission of assisting “low income individuals with pending criminal charges in achieving a fair legal outcome and in becoming productive, law-abiding community members.” AJP argues that most individuals involved with the criminal justice system lack financial resources, job skills, housing, education and treatment for disorders such as drug addiction and mental illness.

Anderson says the criminal justice system acts in an uncharacteristically unjust fashion when it insists on “everlasting punishment.” “It used to be that if you committed a crime, you served your time, and once you’ve paid the debt to society, you get to proceed with your life,” Anderson explained. He posits that there are too many restrictions on the behavior of convicted criminals (where they can live, where they can work, etc.) even after they have finished serving their sentences. “The crime follows them everywhere,” he argues, “and makes them virtually ineligible for rehabilitation into society. Eventually, they find that the only profitable option is to turn to crime again.”

Anderson and his colleagues seek to break this cycle of crime by offering legal representation, counseling and other social services to effect “productive personal growth and self-sustaining work” for their clients.

He is in the beginning stages of an extensive lobbying project which seeks relaxation of the laws which hinder convicts’ productive, successful lives after their sentence. Anderson also promotes civilian education about the justice system. “I want citizens to see how much strain it’s placing on people who come out,” he said. He encourages people to contact legislators about this issue as well.

“What I truly want,” he explains, “is for people to realize that punishment alone is not the be-all, end-all solution to crime.”

The endeavor of aiding the unfortunate carries over to Anderson’s formal occupation as well. He is an attorney for the Timmons, Warnes & Anderson, L.L.P. firm. One of his areas of practice is family law. He often deals with cases involving sexual abuse and domestic violence. His work in this arena is focused on helping victims break ties with their tormentors. “One of the most important parts of my job is helping relationships dissolve with as little interruption to people’s lives as possible,” he said.

He further serves abused victims by volunteering with Project Safe, where he helps clients receive protective orders. He said that the exposure he has had to the effects of domestic violence in his line of work makes the mission of Project Safe all the more poignant to him. “I’ve seen how difficult it can be to escape the cycle of abuse,” he explained.

His compassion is not limited to human beings, either. He makes frequent donations to Best Friends Mobile Veterinary Services, an animal rescue and no-kill shelter for pets that have been dubbed ineligible for adoption. “I’ve always been a supporter of no-kill shelters,” he proclaims, “because humans can be occasionally callous, but I don’t believe death is the best solution.” He asserts that just because these animals cannot be adopted because of disease, injury or other factors does not mean they are not equally entitled to their dignity and a comfortable life.

No, he’s never hit a home run at Yankee Stadium or won the Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest, but Christopher Anderson is a true American. He is a man who espouses “liberty and justice for all,” including the “wretched refuse.”

Possible Add-ons

1. Contact information for Athens Justice Project, Anderson’s firm, Project Safe and Best Friends.

2. Bullet points detailing Anderson’s credentials

3. Trivia box to list some of the more light-hearted details of Anderson’s personal life.

4. Brief Q&A to learn more about Anderson’s hobbies, favorite TV shows, foods, etc.


More fines, more parking, more business

On July 1, 2009, Athens-Clarke commissioners applied a formula that was simple enough: increase the potential punishment for an infraction, and fewer people will commit that infraction.

The infraction is parking meter violations. The punishment is fines.

Almost 10 months later, the ACC Commission is seeing dividends from the application of this basic concept. Parking citations, according to Athens Downtown Development Authority Parking Services Director Laura Miller, have decreased by almost 20,000. Miller and ADDA Director Kathryn Lookofsky both credit the new fines for the decrease in citations.

Additionally, many citizens, particularly downtown business owners, initially criticized the measure for placing an unfair burden on proprietors and customers. However, most have now conceded that, as of March of this year, they have seen an increase in customers and that their customers are happier with the parking situation.

The Commission first visited this issue on March 3, 2009. It voted to implement increased fines for both parking at an expired meter and feeding quarters into a meter after it’s been expired. Parking in a space which has an expired meter would be punishable with a fine of $10 (up from $3). Feeding an expired meter would draw a $15 fine (up from $5).

The move was instigated partly because a 2007 county audit found downtown Athens’s parking rates and fines at the time to be among the lowest in the Southeast. Many officials felt that the lack of substantial penalty encouraged college students and employees of downtown establishments to park for excessive periods of time. This took parking away from customers of downtown shops and restaurants.

The ADDA originally requested increases to $6 for parking at an expired meter and $12 for feeding an expired meter. Six commissioners were not convinced such small increases would compel people to obey the law more closely. One of the six was David Lynn, who said, “$3 is not doing the job, and I don’t think $6 would. But I suspect $10 would get people’s attention.”

George Maxwell, Kathy Hoard and Harry Sims voted against the increases. Maxwell was particularly concerned about the extra burden the measure would place on court witnesses and jurors. He acknowledged that fines needed an increase but did not agree with a move that severe.

In the public sphere, the fee hikes faced mixed reviews.

In an editorial, the Athens-Banner Herald called the parking fees and fines for downtown Athens “laughably low.” A study by the ACC Auditor’s Office indicated that fees for expired meters in Chapel Hill, Chattanooga, Decatur and Savannah averaged $12.66. The editorial went on to say that the new fines would create more turnover to free up more spots.

Many local business owners lashed out against the move. At least 70 of them signed a petition asking the Commission and Mayor Heidi Davidson to reduce fines and increase the parking time limit to two hours. Masada Leather and Outdoor owner Irvin Alhadeff, who serves as president of the Athens Downtown Business Association, called the combination of high fines and short time limit “lethal.”

After the vote, ADDA also requested an increase in time limit.

District 1 Commissioner Doug Lowry said he did not know the ADDA wanted an increased time limit. He added that the Commission would have voted on the measure had they known.

The Commission voted on April 7 to grant an increased time limit but kept the fine amounts steady. Only Lynn and Maxwell opposed. Lynn said allowing people to park longer will continue to crowd downtown spots. He suggested that people who need long-term parking relegate themselves to parking decks.

Now nearly a year into the new policies, increased business and customer satisfaction seem to be fringe benefits spurred by greater conformity to parking procedures. When interviewed in March of this year, Alhadeff admitted that “Business has been great since this change” and that he’s had “an increase in customers.”

Alhadeff also commented that his customers are more satisfied with the availability of spots. “I’ve had customers come in and say, ‘I found space right in front of the store,’” he said.

Rusty Heery, owner of Heery’s Clothes Closet and Heery’s Too agreed that the new fines have “been successful in getting a lot of employees off the street parking meters, which is a good thing.” ADDA records indicate that the number of people requesting long-term spots in decks and surface lots has doubled.

Doug Lloyd, system administrator for UGA’s Enterprise Information Technology Service, said the increased availability of parking spots “is really noticeable,” which has compelled him to visit downtown more often. “It’s absolutely encouraged more frequency for me,” he added. He used to visit downtown for lunch about once every three months, but now goes two or three times a month.

He used to have to walk 15 to 20 minutes from the Boyd Graduate Studies Research Center on the corner of East Campus Road and Cedar Street. He also mentioned that it is difficult to catch buses during lunchtime. Even when he did opt to drive, he would often find no available spots and wound up parking in the College Avenue Deck, several blocks away.

With business owners, customers and government officials happy with the results, the measure has created a true win-win-win situation.


Investigation of Athens homelessness

Most people pay little mind to the sound of jingling change. It comes up often enough, such as when we do laundry or buy a snack from the vending machine.

But for people like Rose, that sound can mean avoiding another night when she has to go to sleep hungry.

She spends her waking hours sitting cross-legged outside her various haunts in downtown Athens. One day, it’s on East Clayton Street, outside the entrance to Doc Chey’s and Mellow Mushroom. The next day, she might be at the street corner where College Avenue and Broad Street intersect, near Five Guys.

Today, she sits on the bench outside the Morton Theatre. She holds up a piece of cardboard that was ripped from the side of a box of Parent’s Choice diapers. Written on it is the phrase “Need money, God bless.” A humble pile of dusty coins lies in a tattered Atlanta Braves cap.

Rose is among the 450 or so homeless people in Athens-Clarke County. The homeless population count in 2009, as tallied by the ACC Human & Economic Development Department’s Annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count, came in at 454. Individuals made up 324 of the population. The 42 homeless families with children added another 130 people.

What may be more disturbing is fact that these numbers over the last four years have remained steady. In 2008, there were 462 homeless people (308 individuals, 154 in families with children). The HED found 464 homeless people (304 individuals, 160 in families with children) in 2007. The homeless in 2006 numbered 475 (319 individuals, 156 in families with children).

Nationwide estimates of the homeless population can differ wildly because there is no official definition of what it means to be homeless. The most recent official count from the federal government found 671,888 people living in shelters or on the street.

In 2004, the United States Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization of cities with populations greater than 30,000, conducted a survey of mayors of major cities. The most frequently cited cause of homelessness was lack of affordable housing.

Data compiled by Partners for a Prosperous Athens demonstrates that affordable housing is indeed out of reach for many of the county’s citizens. For housing to be considered affordable, mortgage or rent cannot exceed 30 percent of gross household income. With the median value of a home in Athens being $111,300, an annual income of $33,900 is required to afford housing. However, median household income for the county is only $28,403. This leaves approximately 21,000 households unable to afford housing of this value.

The USCM found the next leading cause of homelessness to be mental illness. Of the people recorded in the 2009 HED count, 178 homeless people were “severely mentally ill.”

Substance abuse was the next most frequently cited cause. A little over 200 homeless people in Athens-Clarke County in 2009 suffered from chronic substance abuse.

Low-paying jobs were found to be a significant factor as well. In this regard, the county’s problem is three-fold. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average weekly wage is $572, well below the Georgia average of $676.

Additionally, the median hourly wage is $11.75 but the mean is $14.63. This suggests that the distribution of pay is skewed toward the lower end of wages.

Finally, the labor force relies too much on “service-producing” occupations, such as healthcare and social services, retail trade and accommodations and food services. About 54 percent of the county’s jobs fall into these sectors. This kind of work typically does not pay the kind of wages an average citizen needs to live comfortably.

Rose was left without housing after she fled from an abusive spouse. She is among the nearly 80 homeless people who were victims of domestic violence.

The problem is further compounded by the lack of adequate resources to alleviate the plight. The county has only four homeless shelters with a mere 77 beds.

Citizens interested in helping can volunteer with organizations such as the UGA student run Athens PBJs. Robert Thrasher, director and co-founder, has stressed “a need for students to reach out” and the “need for bridging the two communities into one.”

The Salvation Army on Hawthorne Avenue also welcomes help. “The more the community provides,” says Athens Salvation Army Corps Officer Robert Parker, “the more we can provide.”

Add-ons

1. Breakout contact information for Athens PBJs and Salvation Army.

2. Line graph to chart the trends in homelessness.


Downtown Athens restaurants not in compliance

Health inspection scores reveal that downtown Athens restaurants fail to adhere closely to Clarke County Health Department standards.

The Health Department places food and beverage service establishments into three categories of risk: high, medium, low. The Georgia Department of Community Health defines risk as “the likelihood that an adverse health effect will occur within a population as a result of a hazard in a food.” Officials consider such criteria as food preparation and storage techniques, cleanliness of facilities and instruments and quality and source of ingredients.

The “High Risk” category consists of 10 places with a score of 82 or below or more than one critical violation. Big City Bread was criticized for the poor condition of their utensils. The inspector also found food buildup and mold on the walls. Captain D’s lost points for use of a dirty can opener and dicer.

Almost half are classified as “Medium Risk” with scores of 91 or below or one critical violation. The Buddha Bar was penalized for mold at the bottom of coolers and for their restroom walls being in disrepair. The Grill neglected to repair the hot water in their front hand washing sink, and their potato cutter was dirty.

Slightly more than a third of the restaurants are categorized as “Low Risk,” with scores of 92 and above and no critical violations. The only violation the Max Canada committed was a broken handle on the cooler door. SunO dessert did not post their inspection report at eye level and at a place approachable within one foot, which cost them one point.

Twelve places received a perfect score of 100 with no violations. This group includes such restaurants as Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers, the Trappeze Pub and Depalma’s Italian Café.

Twenty-four restaurants committed at least one critical violation. A common infraction is failure to keep food at appropriate temperatures. Cold foods must be kept 41 degrees or below. Hot foods must be kept at 135 degrees or above. Five Guys Burgers & Fries and Pauley’s were among those in violation. Additionally, places like the Mayflower Restaurant and the Sideways Bar were cited for neglecting to keep foods appropriately separated–e.g. raw foods must be separate from ready-to-eat foods. Inspectors observed failure to wash hands at appropriate intervals, such as in between changes of gloves, in places like Doc Chey’s Noodle House and Gyro Wrap.

The worst overall offender in downtown Athens is Pita Pit. Their health score of 70 is one point short of failing and Clarke County’s second lowest. Only Gumby’s Pizza’s score is lower. Pita Pit employees did not wear hair restraints, neglected to wash hands before changing gloves and used a dirty slicer. Drain flies were also found on the premises. Additionally, the person in charge at the time of inspection was unable to answer routine questions regarding the cold holding temperature requirement.

The restaurant’s health score has not prevented James London, 24, from Alpharetta, Ga., from dining there. “I’ve been eating here for a couple of years now,” said London, “I haven’t gotten sick or anything like that, so I don’t really see a reason to stop eating it.”

“I’m not entirely convinced the health score is a completely accurate reflection of the safety of the food,” said Andrew Jaeger, 19, from Roswell, Ga., “I haven’t had any problems with it, anyway.” “It seems like they take off for little stuff sometimes,” Jaeger also remarked.

Low health scores do not necessarily turn loyal customers against restaurants, but Allison Medlock, 21, from Duluth, Ga., is an example of how favorable health scores can win over a customer.

“My friends always tell me how great Mellow Mushroom is, but I never ate there because they used to have a health score of 80 or something,” Medlock said, “When they raised their score, I finally went to try it, and now it’s one of my favorite restaurants.”

Possible Add-ons:

1. A map with dots signifying the 5 downtown restaurants with the lowest health scores and the 5 with the highest health scores

2. A pie chart breaking down the most commonly violated health regulations alongside a chart that details what the violation entails and how many restaurants committed the violation.


Road repaving project “doesn’t seem necessary”

A state and federal allocation of millions of dollars received a less-than-enthusiastic review of “doesn’t seem necessary” on Tuesday.

March 16 marked the second in a series of informational meetings hosted by the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS), the cooperative transportation planning body for the urbanized area which includes Athens-Clarke County, portions of southern Madison County and northern Oconee County.

A central point of discussion at these meetings is a proposed project that involves resurfacing a 2.7-mile stretch of road on US 441 from the SR10 Loop to 0.2 miles south of Newton Bridge Road. The project proposal estimates that almost 15,000 drivers use this area every day. Daily traffic volume is expected to increase to nearly 25,000 by 2035.

Athens-Clarke County Transportation Planner and meeting moderator Sherry Moore questioned whether US441 actually needed repaving. She stated that places like North Avenue demonstrate more need of upkeep.

MACORTS, as well as Athens-Clarke County Public Works Director David Clark, have contacted the Federal Highway Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation to inquire about their reasoning. No reply has been issued. Both organizations declined requests for comment from this publication as well.

“Those agencies are not always open with their rationale,” Moore commented. “The only reason I can think of is because this project can be finished quickly,” she added.

Moore went on to describe how many legislators in the federal government are feeling similar apprehension to measures like the repaving project.

The project proposal estimates that nearly $3 million would be needed to fund the project. The money would come from the Jobs for Main Street Act, a federal stimulus bill that is working its way through the Senate.

The House version of the bill passed in a narrow 217-212 vote with no Republican support. An Associated Press report details similar conflict in the Senate, where many members are hesitant to increase government spending. While many agree the bill would stimulate the economy, many disagree over whether the programs funded–extending unemployment benefits, covering Medicaid costs, extending child tax credits, etc.–will directly put people to work.

Also of concern is how slowly money from the first stimulus bill has been used. For instance, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only $1.7 billion of the $39 billion directed to departments of Transportation and Urban Development will be spent by October.

Because the bill is not yet law, no funds have been formally allotted to the repaving project. Furthermore, the project must be added to the MACORTS Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), the list of all projects receiving federal funds, before it can be initiated.

Moore explains that local governments have only 90 days to use federal funds once they’ve been allotted. Because it would take much longer than 90 days to hire contractors, the FHA and the GDOT requested that MACORTS add the project now so the funds can be employed as quickly as possible if the bill becomes law.

Moore guesses there is a “50-50” chance the bill will pass and expects to receive a decision in the next 2-3 weeks. Moore went on to mention that if the bill did not pass, the road would not be repaved because the county government is not responsible for upkeep of state roads.

The effect of the project on drivers is expected to be minimal. “A few people may have slightly bumpier commutes, and we might receive some phone calls asking what we’re doing,” Moore added, “but it won’t be that big of a deal.”

The amendment’s public comment period lasts until March 23. Comments can be submitted via phone (706-613-3515), e-mail (macorts@co.clarke.ga.us), mail (120 W. Dougherty St., Athens, Ga.) or the MACORTS website (athensclarkecounty.com/macorts). Another meeting will be held at the Danielsville, Ga. Courthouse (91 Albany Ave.) from 5-7 p.m. on March 24.

Possible add-ons

1. PDF copy of the comment form, which readers can print and submit to MACORTS.

2. Timeline graphic of major congressional actions on the bill (as recorded on the website for the Library of Congress).


Repaving project up for comment

Athens-Clarke County citizens will have the opportunity to comment on a repaving project for a road almost 15,000 drivers use daily. The Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS), the cooperative transportation planning body for the urbanized area which includes Athens-Clarke County, portions of southern Madison County and northern Oconee County, will host a public informational meeting on Tuesday, March 16. The meeting will take place at the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department Auditorium (120 W. Dougherty St.) from 4-6 p.m.

Up for discussion is a proposed project that involves resurfacing a 2.7 mile stretch of US 441 from the SR10 Loop to an area 0.2 miles south of Newton-Bridge Road. The project would be added as an amendment to the 2010-2013 version of the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), a document listing all the projects that will receive federal or state funding during the four fiscal years.

The funds for the project, totaling almost $2.3 million, would come from the Jobs for Main Street Act, a federal stimulus bill currently working its way through Congress. Because the legislation has not been signed into law yet, money has not been formally allotted to the project. The Federal Highway Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation requested that MACORTS add the project to its TIP as a preemptive measure of sorts. If the amendment is passed, MACORTS would utilize funds for this project as soon as the stimulus bill passes through Congress.

The GDOT had the resurfacing as part of its maintenance project agenda.

So far, the amendment has received generally positive responses. “Obviously, anyone who drives on that stretch of roadway will benefit from the repaving,” explains Sherry Moore, Athens-Clarke County transportation planner. Traffic volume on the road measures 14,615 per day. The project proposal estimates that the number will increase by about 10,000 drivers in the next 25 years. Significant sites along this stretch of road include the Athens branch of Consolidated Electrical Distribution, a nationwide distributor of electrical products, and Grainger Industrial Supply, an international provider of industrial products and services.

Moore also mentioned that because the money for the project will come from federal funds, the GDOT will save millions in state maintenance funds.

The meeting will be an informal open house affair. Visitors can inspect a public version of the amendment. There is no formal presentation. Rather, various MACORTS staff members will speak individually with visitors and answer questions.

Additionally, the meeting will act as a stage for citizens to voice their opinions on the project to MACORTS officials. Until March 23, citizens can also submit comments via phone (706-613-3515), mail (120 W. Dougherty St. Athens, GA 30601), e-mail (macorts@co.clarke.ga.us) or the MACORTS website (athensclarkecounty.com/macorts).

MACORTS responds to all comments with a confirmation letter, though they provide no feedback on content. MACORTS’s Policy Committee and Technical Committee will review the comments, in their original format, before they vote on the amendment at an unspecified later date.

PROPOSED ADDITIONAL GRAPHICS

  1. Map of area that will be repaved (found at http://athensclarkecounty.com/macorts/Project%20Sht.pdf)
  2. Breakout information on how to contact MACORTS.