Student campaign for arch accessibility moving forward

By Clay Reynolds

Senior Khaled Alsafadi heard a lot about the tradition of passing underneath the arch after graduating from the University of Georgia at his freshman orientation nearly four years ago.

But Alsafadi, bound to a wheelchair, will be unable to take part in that rite of passage when he graduates unless a ramp is built through the structure, which is currently impassible for students who, like him, are mobility impaired and can’t walk up or down the stairs in front of it.

Last month, he and two other UGA students, sophomore Marquise Lane and junior Carden Wyckoff, organized a movement to make the arch accessible by building a ramp through it.

The group is now making its first set of strides toward bringing their proposal to fruition. They will take their ideas before the Student Government Association on Tuesday, and bring with them the apparent support of thousands of students.

Though not the first to come forward with this idea, the team’s case for a change and widespread support of their cause could make them the first to win many of the battles that stand in the way of accomplishing the goal – especially overcoming opposition to the proposal that still exists from top officials.

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure that all alumni have equal access to the tradition,” Wyckoff said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, governs standards of handicap accessibility in public facilities, and prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities by limiting their access to or mobility within “places of public accommodations” – for example, buses, courthouses and doctors offices.

The arch does not fall under the category of a public facility in which accessibility is required, according most experts, since it serves no more than a symbolic function in the university’s day-to-day operations. Alternate access points to north campus are also available nearby for those unable to walk by or through the arch.

The need for a ramp comes in such times that students like Alsafadi, Lane and Wyckoff would want to return to campus and pass through the arch as alumni, particularly after graduation and at football games in the fall.

That sentiment has led some UGA officials to propose installing a temporary ramp during those significant times of year, though the students are pushing for a more permanent solution.

“I’m not just coming back for graduation and not just coming back for a football game,” Wyckoff said. “We want to have access to it at any point in time, regardless of when and where.”

They say a proposal similar to this one has come up and gained popularity among students once about every four or five years in the last several decades, according to what they’ve learned in research and through interactions with UGA’s disability resource center.

In about a month’s-worth of organizing the campaign, the three have mostly worked to organize support and gain publicity through petitions, social media and local and national news outlets.

As of March 19, the group’s Facebook page had received 2,136 likes, and a change.org petition to make the arch accessible had garnered 1,185 signatures.

“It’s mind-blowing to me,” Lane said of the support he’s seen for the movement. “I never really thought 2,000 people could like a page that just three people were a part of.”

Social media, a tool many groups who took on this issue before them didn’t have, could end up making a difference in whether or not the movement gains traction and sees results.

“It’s our main point of access,” Wyckoff said.

The group has discussed their ideas in detail with the Disability Resource Center, University Architects and Student Government Association. Those meetings have produced three design proposals, all which feature a ramp being put in place through just two of the arch’s three pillars, but only one providing direct access to and from the sidewalk on Broad Street.

Photo gallery: design proposals

In communications with many higher-ups about the campaign, they have experienced some pushback.

“We’ve gotten some resistance from top administration,” Alsafadi said. “But we’re not going to take no for an answer. We’re going to keep going with it until it’s done.”

The counter-argument to theirs is not one of cost. Alsafadi said the representatives of the DRC believes cost of improvements wouldn’t be an issue, and even if it were, the group would be willing to raise the necessary funds themselves.

“We would raise money in a heartbeat,” Wyckoff said.

The primary issue many administrators have deals with aesthetics, and preserving the current look of the arch in accordance with procedures for making improvements to historical sites. The project would also require cooperation of the Athens-Clarke County unified government, which owns the sidewalk in front of it.

The students insist they’re concerned with maintaining the arch’s appearance as much as they are about creating equal access to it.

“We don’t want to do anything that’s going to mess up the appearance and make it look not as appealing,” Alsafadi said.

An accessible arch would perhaps be even more in keeping with history than the current arch is. Wyckoff has uncovered photos from before the 1900s that prove the original arch was on level ground with the rest of north campus. Stairs were not added until after the turn of the 20th century.

Alsafadi, Lane and Wyckoff are optimistic that their campaign will produce results several months down the road, although the immediate outlook for their plan is uncertain.

Their case for making the arch accessible is one of equality, but it’s not as much about convenience as tradition – enabling everyone to take part in the simple, yet meaningful tradition of passing through the arch.

“The pillars, on their own, they stand for moderation, wisdom and justice,” Alsafadi said. “You have to give justice to all your students, not just the able-bodied ones. We all go through the same work and even have to go through more obstacles that we overcome, so we should be able to partake in the tradition.”


Athens drivers may start paying for ignoring one safety law

By Emily Curl

A school bus is stopped on Barnett Shoals road, dropping students at the entrance of an apartment complex.

Traffic behind the bus is stopped.

But eight of the nine cars traveling in the opposite direction do not stop.

Those drivers who did not stop violated Georgia’s law regarding school bus safety.

The law confuses many motorists, officials acknowledge, but understanding and obeying the law is the only way to avoid a $300 ticket.

Following in the steps of many other school districts across the U.S., Athens’s motorists will start paying a fine for ignoring school bus stop signals beginning this week.

Cobb County’s school district has already implemented this same camera system on their school busses, and according to the transportation director for the school district, Rick Gresham, bus drivers have already seen a decrease in violations.

Many other states, such as Connecticut, Maryland, Washington, and Louisiana, have also begun installing these mounted traffic cameras onto school buses to deter motorists from speeding past stopped buses.

This past January, five Clarke County School District buses were equipped with external cameras in hopes to enforce Georgia’s state law requiring motorists to stop for school buses when they drop passengers off.

These cameras were finally put into action on Monday after several weeks of test runs.

Ernie Stedman is an employee of American Traffic Solution and the installer of the camera systems on Clarke County school buses.

When asked about the cameras, Stedman said “There are 6 cameras on each bus. The system (a small computer) knows when the stop arm is extended, and can visually detect when a vehicle passes. It then records a video of the vehicle and its tag, and sends the video up to the server for review and citation issuance. Everything on the bus [system] is automated requiring no driver involvement.”

In the past, it was the responsibility of Clarke County bus drivers to recognize a car passing the stopped bus and up to them to make note of the tag number.

This proved almost impossible for any busy bus driver.

As stated by the American Traffic Solutions website “CrossingGuard® is a completely automated enforcement system that requires no bus driver involvement. High-resolution cameras installed on the exterior of the bus automatically capture images and video of violating vehicles as they illegally pass the stop arm. In addition to capturing video, the system automatically embeds a data bar which includes GPS coordinates, date and time of the violation, and other relevant violation information used to create a comprehensive evidence package.”

This could be bad news for drivers who do not know the extent of the law.

“It will reduce violations in two ways,” Stedman added. ” The cameras themselves are a deterrent for anyone thinking of passing when the arm is out. The second way is by modifying driver behavior; if they do go around, they get a $300 citation.  I think they will be very careful not to repeat that offense.”

The Georgia law states “when [a] school bus stops for passengers, all traffic from both directions must stop.”

All motorists are expected to obey this law, unless there is a physical barrier as a median, then only traffic following the bus must stop.

Barnett Shoals Road is a four lane road with a turning lane running throughout the middle of the road.

There is no physical barrier as a median, meaning motorists traveling in the opposite direction are expected to stop for the school bus along with the traffic following the bus.

This law is confusing to many motorists, but it is important for all drivers to know and understand the law to avoid getting a ticket.

“I think it is confusing to a lot of drivers,” Emily Jolly said when asked about Georgia’s law. “I know I have to stop on a two lane road, but sometimes when I’m traveling on a larger road I don’t even notice the bus stopped on the opposite side.”

This same idea is common for many Athens drivers.

“I guess it’s just because I never really see other cars stopping, I didn’t realize I had to stop,” T.J. Hinton answered when asked about stopping for school buses on Barnett Shoals Road.

This is exactly what the Clarke County School District is hoping the camera systems will accomplish: awareness.

Cathy Benson, Clarke County’s school district transportation director, explained that five buses are equipped with this camera system at this time, but there is a possibility of adding up to twenty buses total.

When asked how the buses were picked to have the system installed she said the buses were chosen by the roads they travel; buses that travel on busier, heavily congested roads were picked to be outfitted with the cameras first.

According to Benson, there was no cost to the school district to have the buses equipped with the cameras, and the district does not receive any revenue from violations.

Online Athens reported, “Violators face a $300 fine for their first violation, $750 for a second offense and $1,000 for a third.”

“Safety for our students is always our foremost goal,” Benson said. “However, we also want to educate and increase the awareness of the public about the laws when sharing the road with school buses.”


Proposed Legislation for Reducing Gun Restrictions–What it means for Athens

The trigger is pulled and the gun jerks back. The shell flies out. The bullet travels down the range almost too fast to be seen. The only evidence of the bullet’s presence, a Bang! The sound echoes off the cement walls and a single bullet hole appears straight through the target—an outline of a human profile.

Daniel Grass, a senior at the University of Georgia, shows off his target image. Ten bullet holes gape in the paper target—all through the head.

Grass is confident in his shooting ability and plans to purchase a gun when he has enough money. He said he would not feel any more or less safe carrying a gun with him on campus—but that is exactly what he would be able to do if the proposed legislation House Bill 512 were to pass through the senate.

House Bill 512, which passed through the Georgia House in a 117-56 vote this month, is currently being reviewed by the Senate. HB 512, also known as the Safe Carry Protection Act, amends current legislation to lift restrictions on where guns can be carried. If passed this bill would allow concealed weapons on college campuses—as well as in places of worship, bars and unsecured government buildings.

Athens House Representatives were split on their vote for HB 512. Democratic Representative Spencer Frye voted against the bill while Republican Representative Regina Quick voted in favor. As reflected by the conflicting views of the two representatives, the Athens community has a variety of opinions on HB 512.

HB 512 would affect public institutions differently than private ones. Places of worship and bars, because they are private property rights, would still be allowed to decide whether or not to allow weapons in their establishment. Public universities, however, are considered government institutions and would be required to permit guns on certain areas of their campus.

The University of Georgia being a public institution would be directly impact by the passing of the Safe Carry Protection Act.

University Police Chief Jimmy Williamson opposes HB 512, particularly legislation that would allow for guns to be carried on college campuses. “We like where the current law is,” said Williamson. “I have concerns [about HB512] from a safety standpoint.”

Williamson said that he believed the law would cause a number of issues and would make the job of police officers more difficult. He noted his concern about the influence guns would have on instances of intimidation or bullying on campus. Williamson said the presence of more guns in innocent people’s hands would complicate the job of police officers when in came to responding to active shooters. “It would be hard for the police responding to know who the good guy and who the bad guy is,” said Williamson.

On the other side of the issue Bobby Tribble an employee at Franklin Gun Shop in Athens, said

“If you are a law abiding person you can carry a gun anywhere you want to and as long as you don’t show off with it and do something illegal or unless you have to use the gun nobody is going to know you have it anyway.”

Tribble said he did not believe that passing or removing restrictions on where gun owners could carry weapons would change the number of people carrying concealed weapons in these areas. “Only law abiding people obey laws so passing more laws is not going to have any effect.”

The University Union hosted a debate on gun control open to students, faculty and athens locals. Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owner Association and  Kathryn Grant of the non-profit organization Gun Free Kids, both presented their views on the issue guns on campus.

Grant, who is part of the Keep Guns Off Campus Resolutions, said in opposition to HB 512, “The assertion that arming students and teachers in keeping the campus community safe lies at the heart of this debate, but is a rationale seen by many as fundamentally flawed.” Grant further encouraged those making decisions on this bill to listen to experts on the issue that have said putting guns on campus will not make it a safer environment.

Feldman a prominent lobbyist for gun rights refuted Grant. Feldman said that in order to discuss the issue of gun control people must get away form the emotions in the issue.

“[If] I am carrying that gun legally, am I somehow, when I cross over onto school property, going to become a vicious killer? I think not,” said Feldman. The concern is not where guns can be carried. The important issue is who is carrying a gun.

Feldman said, removing gun restrictions would not change the number of dangerous people who could carry a gun on campus—rather it would increase the number of law-abiding citizens who would have a gun and ability to defend themselves.

But do students or faculty feel they would be safer if guns were allowed on campus? University Georgia System Chancellor Hank Huckaby does not think so.

“In my position I believe strongly that allowing our students to carry weapons on our campuses will not increase their personal safety but instead reduce it,” said Huckaby, in a statement before the Georgia legislative committee. Huckaby is supported by the 31 other University System of Georgia’s presidents in his opposition of HB 512.

Lucas Smith a freshman at the University of Georgia said he is against HB 512. “There are merits to both arguments, but I would personally want to see no guns on campus,” said Smith. While Smith said he supports the second amendment, he feels that he pays money to attend the University and should have a say in how safe he feels on campus.

Back at the shooting range, Grass fired over 17 rounds through his target practicing his precision and aim. “I agree with allowing guns in more places,” said Grass. “I think the biggest misconception about gun control is that, the more regulation you put on gun is going to keep them out of the wrong hands.”

Grass believes that current legislation restricting gun carrying on campus is not going to stop someone who wants to bring a gun on campus from doing so. By allowing guns on campus Grass said he did not feel the number of students carrying guns would drastically increase.

“There might be a small percent of student who carry [guns] and they are going to be the responsible ones who wouldn’t want to shot me anyways. The only thing that [allowing guns on campus] could do it maybe prevent a mass shooting or something,” said Grass.

While the Safe Carry Protection Act remains under review in the Georgia Senate, the Athens and University community can contact Athens’ State Senator Bill Cowsert to voice their opinion on House Bill 512.   


Restaurant Health Inspections Anything but Consistent

By: Colson Barnes and Whitney M. Wyszynski

“It could be as simple as an open soda can in the kitchen,” said Kyu Lee, manager of Wingster.

He shook his head and shrugged, thinking about the health inspection score of 70 percent Wingster received on Nov. 13, 2012.

A window behind the cash register showed the cook busy preparing a variety of sauces.  The phone buzzed with delivery orders.  Anxious customers ordering delivery are unable to see the health score mounted next to the door.

“Simple things will deduct points from the score,” Lee said, looking at the kitchen. “We all have different responsibilities to clean this place.”

Restaurants like Wingsters are inspected one to two times per year by the Clarke County Health Department.  An analysis of restaurant scores in Athens revealed:

■      The Northeast Georgia Health District does not update the restaurant inspection website regularly.

■      There is no consistent system for documenting the scores online, and past scores are not archived online for public access.

■      The time of day, inspector, and time of year can affect a restaurant’s health score.

Nationwide Trends

According to the New York Times, many restaurant operators complain that numerical scores “can be confusing or deceptive.”  Customers often do not know the specific policies that detracted from the optimal score.

The Times-Picayune determined that Louisiana’s restaurant inspectors were more lenient than national counterparts.  The paper determined that “the difference seems to be in how each municipality enforces its safety regulations.”

“But restaurateurs complain, reasonably, that it’s a racket for the city to squeeze more money out of them,” Forbes writer, Josh Barro said. “A restaurant that gets a bad grade is inclined to pay for a re-inspection so it can display an A, but it still has to pay penalties based on the negative results of the first inspection.”

The Georgia Department of Community Health, through the county health departments, sends an inspector to inspect facilities where food is consumed on or off the premises.

Six inspectors monitor restaurants in Athens, and they do not notify the restaurants before the inspection occurs.  The names of the inspectors are not provided to the public.

Restaurants are given a numerical score from 0-100 based on the cleanliness of the facility. A score less than 70 is considered a failing grade; however, the restaurant will receive a follow-up inspection within 10 days.

Restaurant inspection scores are listed on the Clarke County Health Department website, with the date and brief explanations of violations.

After interviewing representatives at restaurants with the five lowest health ratings, many agreed that the regulations have become more difficult.  Wingster, Johnny’s New York Style Pizza, Plantation Buffet, Jimmy John’s, and Waffle House scored the lowest, as of Mar. 7, 2013.

[Would your kitchen pass a health department inspection?]

Some of the most popular restaurants fall short of a passing grade due to wrong food temperature control, improperly marked foods and poor employee health.

Food inspections are divided into two categories—critical and non-critical.  Deductions that have risk factors outlined by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are considered critical. The non-critical categories include factors that are designated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration.

[What are the most common violations?]

Success Stories

Howard Anderson, manager of the Jimmy John’s on Baxter Street, has worked with Jimmy John’s since 2006.

“We are very systematic here. We have a punch list that comes from Jimmy John’s corporate, but it doesn’t take into account the Georgia health regulations,” Anderson said.

Jimmy John’s scored 75 percent on its Mar. 7, 2013 inspection.  Anderson headed for the Health Department a mere day after the original inspection.

“I went to talk to the health inspector about what we can do to improve our score,” he said. “I retrained everyone on hand washing and the basic lessons about diseases.”

Anderson believes it was a lack of training that was the problem, but he also noted that this inspection was different than past inspections.

“It was more difficult this past time,” Anderson said.  He noted that some other restaurants may not be following some of the lesser known policies.

“She [the inspector] was specific about things like needing to spray the floor before we sweep it,” Anderson said.

Jimmy John’s on Baxter St. worked to improve. The restaurant’s score skyrocketed to a 100 percent on the follow-up inspection.

Herschel’s Famous 34, a new restaurant on Broad Street, received a 100 percent on its first inspection.

“I think it definitely makes a difference [to have a good health score],” said Lee Purser, Herschel’s Famous 34 manager.

Health inspection scores are a glimpse of the restaurant’s performance, but most establishments want a perfect score, according to Andrea Kerr, the environmental health manager at the Clarke Country Health Department.

“It is unrealistic to expect that a complex, full-service food operation can routinely avoid any violations,” the health department website highlighted. “An inspection conducted on any given day may not be representative of the overall, long-term cleanliness of an establishment.”

Ms. Kerr said the food service inspection scores are uploaded to the Northeast Health District website nightly.  However, Jimmy John’s follow-up inspection score from Mar. 13, 2013 was not updated until Mar. 26, 2013, per this blog’s request.

There is no consistent system for denoting follow-up scores.  Some restaurants, like Wingster, display the most recent score, whereas other restaurants, such as Wok Star, display both the original and follow-up score.

Psychology in Decision-Making

Many psychological studies have determined the effects of extraneous factors on decision-making.  Factors, such as the time of day, day of the week, and weather conditions, can affect a person’s decisions.

“Even patently false or irrelevant information often affects choices in significant ways,” according to the New York Times.

A recent study at the California Institute of Technology determined that people’s value judgments affect decision-making.  Value-based decisions occur in the prefrontal cortex, which affects personality expression and social behavior.

The prefrontal cortex is known for the executive function.  This function differentiates between conflicting thoughts—better and best, good and bad, and correct and incorrect.

Inspector discretion plays a key role in restaurant health scores.  Local restaurants complain that certain inspectors are tougher than others.

Possible Solution

The names of inspectors are not released publically, and past scores are not archived on the Northeast Georgia Health District website.  Assigning ID numbers to inspectors could be a possible solution.

ID numbers could be disclosed on the website, and if citizens spotted suspicious score fluctuations, they could report findings to the health department.  This would protect the inspector’s identity while monitoring the consistency of the scores.

Inspector discretion affects the public’s view of a restaurant, and this system could make the process more transparent.


Liquor license enforcement not race related

Anthony Lonon locked the doors of his two popular Athens nightclubs for one last time, which changed the nightclub scene for both students and Athenians. Unlike other clubs that graced Athens’ buildings in the past, this club closed for in-house reasons and not because of what people believed to be a showcase of racial biases from enforcement.

For years, speculations of racial prejudices against African-American owned clubs circled around in the classic city. Now documentation of liquor license violations and statements from club owners and students disprove this myth. Police units and government officials enforce strict adherence to liquor license violations.

“When I went to Clarke County and told them what I wanted to do, they were very helpful and everybody seemed to have good attitudes about it,” Lonon said.

Former clubs that closed include Top Dawg, Bulldog Café, Sky City and Aftermath. All have closed down because of liquor license violations with the exception of Sky City and Bulldog Café. The problems that these clubs face however are self-inflicted by the owners of the businesses.

Former club owners and students agreed that certain clubs with poor management face permanent or temporary shutdowns from liquor license violations.

“A lot of the downtown clubs like to make excuses and say we got shutdown because the police did this and people didn’t do this but most of the time it was because they didn’t do what they were supposed to do and they’re looking for an excuse to overcome their short comings,” Lonon said.

Jarred Moore visited all of these clubs during his undergraduate years. He agreed that poor management threatens black-owned clubs and the safety of visitors.

“When you go to certain clubs the way the crowd acts is generally a direct reflection of how lax the management is on regulating the atmosphere,” Moore said. “Of course going out is a way to let go of the stresses endured during the week but at what point do you consider safety?”

Lack of cooperation with government officials and enforcement attributed to harder crack downs harder on these clubs. Lonon had great business rapport with government officials and police officers. He believed this relationship benefited the livelihood of his two clubs Bulldog Café and Sky City.

“As far as businesses are concerned in Athens-Clarke County I think that no matter what kind of business you’re running here if you go to the right people and you go to them with the right attitude, I think they are willing to help,” Lonon said.

Capt. Melanie Rutledge contested Lonon’s statement and thinks all businesses cooperate in order to have a successful business.

“I don’t know that we have a bad relationship with any of them. The guys that work in the downtown unit, the lieutenant and sergeants, I think they know them and have a really good relationship with them,” Rutledge said. “They want their business to be respectful and not thought of as a dangerous place for people to go so they’re very compliant and work with us as far as I know.”

Competition created a loss of revenue between club owners who planned similar events at the same time as each other. Lonon recalled nights where he planned events geared toward college students and within hours other venues promoted similar events for the same time. Residents noticed when clubs would host similar events on the same night and they had to choose where to go.

“When clubs would have the same party on the same night it just came down to which club had the better crowd and reputation,” India Kimbro said. “At the end of the day it’s where your friends want to go and where you know you’ll have fun and be safe for the night.”

Chuck Moore agreed that club ownership in Athens is a tough business because of the stiff competition to attract more people. Moore works for the Financial Services Division of the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government. The Business and Tax Revenue department of this division reviews and issues alcohol license applications. If a business violates the license, the Municipal Court can order the department to revoke the license or the business faces a probationary period.

“It’s a dog eat dog business with owning a club in Athens,” Moore said. “I mean it’s got to be tough.”

Police officers created new methods to ensure that clubs complied with liquor license rules. If a club is found in violation of these rules they are cited on the spot and must appear in the Municipal Court before a judge.

“We have an alcohol unit and they go in and do undercover operations at bars and make sure they’re in compliance with checking ID’s and not selling underage,” Rutledge said. “When there is a violation they go in right then and write them a ticket and those are offenses that you can’t just go pay the citation. It’s a court only issue so they have to go before the judge.”

The Municipal Court judge determines a penalty for the violator to adhere to. These penalties range from fines and probationary periods to liquor license revocations.

Once a business completes their court order they fill out a new 16-page liquor license application that includes a comprehensive criminal background check of the owner, consideration of previous violations, and a schedule of fees they must pay in order to sell certain types of alcohol. The amount of money business pays varies on the way the alcohol is served or sold to customers.

“The idea is just that we don’t tax them to death and keep it fair so big bars pay more and little bars pay less,” Chuck Moore said. “ It’s all politics set by the Mayor and Commission.”

Aftermath closed before for liquor license violations, fire code violations and total interior renovations. In the most recent liquor license application, Aftermath reported three violations of fire code safety violations. To reopen they paid almost $6,000 for filing a late application and to serve alcohol beverages by the drink.

Top Dawg closed in the summer of 2010 after a liquor license revocation. This space is now occupied by the 9d’s and 8e’s bar in Downtown Athens.
Lonon’s clubs closed down last year because of a dispute with new building owners who did not agree with his lease renewal requests.

“We had our share of problems but ultimately, I decided I wasn’t going to sign a new lease for a company who wasn’t going to do anything so we moved out with intentions of building a new facility from the ground up,” Lonon said.

Most club owners tend to take their business elsewhere in hopes to have a more lucrative business. Lonon decided to keep his business within Athens just through other entertainment venues. He owns five other businesses but hopes to build a new nightclub from the ground up and start a local radio station.

Students remain skeptical of racism in downtown Athens but the problem seems to stem from local bars toward students and not from government officials against black-owned bars. A Red & Black article addressed the problem of discriminatory dress codes, event cancelations based on “the type of crowd attracted” and anti hip-hop acts by DJ’s.


Overpopulation Risks with More Housing Developments Downtown

Citizens line up at a microphone close to the Board of Directors panel to give their input on developmental issues, such as low-income housing and the Classic Center expansion, at the Athens Downtown Development Authority board meeting held last Tuesday, February 13. One citizen asks, “How will the Classic Center expansion and other developments affect the downtown area positively?”

Downtown areas in college towns nationwide are becoming ideal places to build housing developments and other venues for leisurely purposes. In the downtown Athens area, new housing and hotel developments are being built as close to downtown as possible to accommodate students and visitors, but could lead to major increases in traffic and overpopulation in an already crowded city.

According to the news site, Globest, cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta are at their prime for investing and building student housing and other developments in their downtown areas. Athens is quickly becoming familiar with these kinds of investments as well. According to OnlineAthens, a news outlet, $140 million is being instilled in new developments and expansions for the downtown area.

The Standard at Athens and the Hyatt Hotel developments both cost almost $70 million together and play tremendous monetary roles in this investment for downtown. There is also an unnamed four-building-project between Hull and Lumpkin streets and Clayton and Broad streets, not to mention, the Classic center expansion, unveiled February 17th, played a $24 million part in this injection. Counted separately from this $140 million investment is a nine-acre Armstrong & Dobbs project, expected to cost $80 million. It will include retail space, space for an anchor tenant and about 250 housing units with about 600 bedrooms.

Focusing on the various housing developments in the downtown area, The Standard at Athens, a new $30 million dollar housing project opening in fall 2014, will be a six-story development with a rooftop infinity pool, sauna, cyber café, fitness center, indoor golf simulator, a courtyard and other amenities. There will be an eight story parking deck attached to this project, which will make it one of the larger buildings in the downtown area.

The Hyatt Hotel, said to open in late winter/early spring 2014, will have 188 rooms, 10 condos, as well as a restaurant. There is also the Armstrong & Dobbs tract will have 250 housing units within its development stretching from East Broad Street to Wilkerson Street.

Reise Reports, a real estate data and analysis company, has reported that the Athens area is ranked No. 150 in rent growth at 0.4 percent, which could affect how other apartments outside the interior of the city will be able to compete as more housing opens up downtown.

Some Athens delegates and university students believe that this new development will be an innovative opening into the future for downtown Athens.

Sophomore Elizabeth Turchan, an International Business major at the University of Georgia is looking to live off campus next year and is excited about new housing in the downtown area.

“Next year, I really want to live off campus and am ideally looking for housing that is a hop, skip and jump away from campus. I think it’s awesome that they’re building student housing downtown because I can walk to campus and wouldn’t be too far from the downtown night life,” said Turchan. “I expect that downtown Athens, just like any downtown area of any city already has a lot of traffic so I don’t see that as a real problem.”

Other officials and students believe that too much housing downtown risks dangers to the community.

“Building developments too close together is a hazard. A fire or anything could happen. Developers don’t really care nowadays,” said Vernon Payne, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner.

Junior Jacquelynne Rodriguez, double majoring in Communication Sciences and Disorders and Spanish, is strongly against large developments in the downtown area, as well.

“A lot of contractors tend to come from out of state and the money is essentially leaving Athens, especially when you have larger developments. We have to think about the economic welfare of Athens,” Rodriguez said. “With ‘mom and pop’ shops, people tend to care more about Athens, but when you have large scale contractors who are building larger developments, they’re more concerned with making money than with the well being of Athens as a town. Downtown Athens isn’t made for large amounts of traffic either with mostly two-lane roads and middle parking on most streets.”

The people are what contribute to Athens’ culture and character, but others retort that too many developments and housing could lead to overpopulation and danger in that area.

“I expect that downtown Athens, just like any downtown area of any city already has a lot of traffic so I don’t see that as a real problem,” Turchan said.

“If they keep developing downtown, there is going to be a massive amount of people in a small, centralized location at all times, which is cause for concern,” Rodriguez declared.


Towing Troubles in the Classic City

Sweaty and tired, Angela Gao walked across downtown at 4:55 p.m. to the parking lot after her regular Friday shift. She looked around for minutes until her worst fear was realized.

“I parked downtown across from SunO’s before work,” Gao said, an employee at Transmetropolitan. “When I came back, it was gone.”

Cars of all sizes fit like puzzle pieces across the squared streets of the downtown area. Dozens of people can be seen pumping quarter after quarter into the five feet tall meters emerging from the concrete along each street. A young male walks back and forth on the driver’s side of his SUV, possibly considering and reconsidering parking in the W01 lot, before pulling back out and leaving.

This scene exemplifies the state of fear many have when parking in downtown. All are uneasy without sufficient pocket change or permits in a city with limited parking, facing a slew of towing service with varying fees and practices.

Gao says that she called the towing agency, Oldham’s, listed at the front of lot, who told her that if she could get from Broad Street to Oak Street in five minutes, it would only be $150 – only in cash — to release her 1998 Toyota Solara. If she couldn’t, her next option would be the following day for $165.

Others like Gao have also faced large prices concerning wrecking fees. The Athens-Clarke County police released a statement concerning the “recently fielded inquiries in regards to regulations upon what a wrecker service may charge” in November 2010.

The statement later quotes section 6-15-6 of the Athens-Clarke county Code of Ordinances, stating a $100 maximum on wrecking fees for police nonconsensual tows, when lot owners or towing companies spot an illegally parked car and take action. Municode, the online library for Athens-Clarke County code of ordinances, states that the ordinance is still in effect today, but several other ordinances added in 2004 were not followed in Gao’s experience.

The new ordinance says that a “wrecker service must accept credit cards or bank debit cards at its place of business for payment of the fees,” a rule that didn’t seem to apply to Gao, who later had to “pool all [her] tip money and withdraw to get the car out for work the next day.”

There are more than a handful of towing services that service the downtown, each with their own separate prices and locations. While some offenders on Clayton Street may face a $100 fee from Barrett’s Towing, others are slapped with a $150 or higher charge from Oldham’s Wrecker Paint and Body Shop.

“We parked in the 909 lot overnight and when we came back, [our cars] were gone,” Monica Flamini said, a student at the University echoing Gao’s statements. “We hadn’t known that they were towed. We had to pay $175 for each car. Their place is in the middle of nowhere and it really put a damper on our day.”

The revenue from fines and forfeitures total $4,748,100, which is a 5.6 percent increase since the last fiscal year, according to the Athens-Clarke County budget. It is the one of the largest increases, percentage wise, despite being only two percent of total revenue.

The Athens-Clarke county ordinances create a conflict between police consensual and nonconsensual tows. “Fees for removal, storage, etc., of authorized vehicles from private property,” section 3-4-43, states that the charge for towing is $60 in the daytime and $70 in the nighttime, with the decision depending on the time the dispatcher calls the towing service. In the case of Gao, if the police had called instead of the lot’s owner, it would have saved her $95.

George Maxwell is the commissioner for the district encompassing downtown. Maxwell could not be reached for comment on the issue at the moment.

Oldham’s has also not followed the ordinance in regard to being “staffed and operated … from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.”

“They told me to call after 10 a.m.,” Gao said. “When I called around 11:30 a.m., they told me I was too late.”

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America(PCI) tracks the hassles of towing across the country through national surveys. The 2011 National Towing Survey created a list of “the 149 worst areas for aggressive towing practices,” listing Atlanta, Ga. as No. 4 in the country among Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Houston.

“While there are many honest, well-intentioned operators, a few bad players have created widespread problems,” PCI said in a press release. The biggest issues found by PCI in the survey were those faced by Gao: towing/storage charges and miscellaneous Fees; inconsistent and difficult release process; lack of transparency and communication from towing companies; and access to vehicle for adjustors.

Many park illegally due to the heavily pedestrianized state of downtown. The conflict lies between where people want and where people can park. The new Washington Street deck hopes to alleviate the issue of illegal parking in downtown.

“If someone would like to park for a longer period of time, that’s a matter of choice and the new deck would allow them to do that,” Laura Miller said, director of parking operations for the Athens Downtown Development Authority, to the Civic Life in Downtown Athens blog.

Gao must continue to park downtown for her job despite the giant, red $165 mark on her bank statement.

“I now have to be more vigilant about the situation,” Gao said. “I sometimes have to move my car around during my break if I feel like I might get towed. I am just paranoid.”


Public urination considered sex offense in Georgia, not enforced by police

By Polina Marinova

It’s 1 a.m. downtown. The bars are crowded and the lines to the bathroom are just too long. But he can’t hold it, and no one can see him behind that tree — except his 17-year-old girlfriend.

Until now, he was a first-year college student with hopes to go to med school. Though this situation is hypothetical, the student would be considered a registered sex offender for the rest of his life under Georgia law.

Georgia is one of 13 states that require sex offender registration for those charged with urinating in public. It is considered a sex offense if the act is committed in view of a minor.

So technically, all four University of Georgia students charged with public urination in the last two months could land on the Georgia’s sex offender registry if they were with friends who were under 18 years old.

Their names would appear right beside other offenders charged with crimes such as rape, sexual battery and child molestation. If labeled as a sex offender, the individual’s picture would be featured on the county sheriff’s department sexual offender registry and his residence would be marked on a map showing where he lives.

But those students’ mugshots will never make it to the state’s sex offender registry — at least not in Athens-Clarke County.

Federal law does not limit states’ authority to increase the number of offenses that require sex offender registration.

Researchers found that many states require individuals to register as sex offenders even though their conduct did not involve sexual coercion or violence. The researchers who are part of Human Rights Watch — an independent organization dedicated to defending human rights — compiled a report in 2007 examining US sex offender laws.

The public indecency provisions in the official Georgia Code state that a person commits a public indecency offense if there is a public act of “lewd exposure of the sexual organs” or “lewd appearance in a state of partial or complete nudity.”

But local law enforcement does not consider public urination to fit into those categories.
“Just because they word it in such a way doesn’t mean we’re doing it,” said Jimmy Williamson, University of Georgia chief of police. “Truly, I guess you could charge somebody with public indecency if they were to urinate, but most times we go with the public urination charge. It has to be more than just going to the restroom.”

The ACC police force does not classify public urination as a sex offense either, said Hilda Sorrow, ACC public information officer.

“Yes, it’s public indecency, but urinating in public is not a sex offense,” she said. “It becomes a sex offense if you start doing other things than just urinating.”

But where is the line drawn between exposing sex organs while urinating and exposing sex organs while doing those “other things?”

Williamson said public indecency differs from public urination because the indecency charge is typically for “someone who would be exposing themselves or touching themselves in a sexual way.”
He gave an example of an individual who goes to a park or stands outside of children’s day cares and masturbates.

“That’s typically what indecent exposure is for,” Williamson said. “So indecent exposure would be seen as a sex offense. Those actions that we see would be more of a sexual offender. You going over and urinating in the bushes — whether male or female — even though you’re exposing sexual organs, I don’t see that as an indecent exposure charge.”
But Williamson’s next example of public indecency makes his definition of public indecency even hazier.

“We have flashers in society — we haven’t seen many lately, but we could see them again,” he said.

Flashers — like public urinaters — are exposing their sexual organs in public but are also likely not touching themselves in a sexual manner either. Flashers, however, could be charged with public indecency and have to register as sex offenders, whereas urinaters would not.

This kind of ambiguity creates a fine line between what the law states is a sex offense versus what law enforcement officials consider a sex offense.

“Even though the law might allow for that to be charged, you wouldn’t typically see the police charge someone with public indecency if someone’s truly urinating,” Williamson said. “The way I view it, I wouldn’t call it a sex offense, and I don’t think anyone would send it in as a sex offense.”
Just because Williamson doesn’t see public urination as a public indecency charge doesn’t change the fact that it’s still on the books as a sex offense so long as the urination is done in the view of a minor.

In many cases, students who are caught urinating, are not even charged with public urination — which is an arrestable offense. Instead, they are typically charged with public intoxication or underage possession or consumption of alcohol, according to University of Georgia police reports.

“You normally don’t do those things when you’re sober,” Williamson said. “People only do those things when they’ve been drinking. It’s not uncommon to charge people with a number of charges to deal with the instance at hand. The public urination is usually what draws the police department’s attention.”

The incidents occur at 1 or 2 a.m., and 99 percent of the time, the public urinater is male, according to Williamson’s observations in his 25 years of experience in law enforcement.

But he’s never heard of a student landing on a sex offender registry as a result of urinating in public.

“Even if somebody’s charged with public indecency as a result of that type of action, I just don’t think our solicitor would allow it to rise to that level and be sent in as a sex offender if they’re just urinating,” Williamson said.

The police make the charges, and the solicitor’s office handles the final deposition. But the gray area between public urination and public indecency highlights the discrepancy between state regulations and local law enforcement.

“I don’t think the solicitor’s office would allow it to get to that level,” Williamson said. “I don’t think anybody meant for public urination to end up on there.”

 


Female public urination more common

They squatted next to a trashcan in an empty parking lot — urinating.

Morgan Elizabeth Wright, 18, and Andrea Charlotte Thomas, 19, were arrested in early January on charges of underage possession of alcohol and possession of fake identifications, according to a police report. An officer approached them as they were both still urinating.

Female urination may not be as common as male urination, according to University Police Chief Jimmy Williamson. But recent crime reports show more female students may be willing to squat and relieve themselves in public.

Of the five public urination cases reported by The Red & Black during January and February, three of them included female offenders. All of them had charges of either public intoxication or underage possession of alcohol.

University Police Chief Jimmy Williamson said he was unable to tell if most cases usually concerned males or females. He said the five cases in the last two months were not enough to determine whether most offenders were females.

He said he did not track the cases that way either, but he would assume most cases usually concern males.

In another incident, Megan Cancila Nicole, 20, was approached by officers while she “squatted down beside a green Jeep urinating,” according to a police report.

She was arrested on Jan. 20 on charges of underage possession of alcohol and urinating in public, according to a University of Georgia police report. Ten days after Wright and Thomas were arrested.

Several emails and calls to Women’s Studies professors and sociology professors at the University were not returned.

Cecilia Herles, assistant director of the Institute for Women’s Studies, said she had no comment on the matter of female public urination and said she did not know anyone else in the department that could comment.

According to Williamson, however, the reasons for public urination across the board may simply be a lack of better judgment.

“Most people who are in a sober state try to find a location. The difficulty seems to turn late at night or in the morning,” he said. “We don’t have a problem with people on North Campus right now having to go to the restroom and hiding behind a tree. They would go to a facility. But I think when it is late at night and there are less spaces open and the fact that you’re inebriated makes for some poor decisions.”

And though such an incident could create an awkward situation for offenders in a sober mindset, under the influence of alcohol there is little awkward interaction between the officer and the female offender.

“If I walked in on you and you were sober, there would probably be some huge embarrassment on the violators part,” Williamson said. “But with the alcohol, they don’t rationalize it how they would if they were sober.”

He said, on the part of the officer, most do not find it awkward either. Williamson said police officers encounter different situations every day, and they almost become immune to the situations.

“But when it’s your job, and you’re confronting people all the time and they’re making bad decisions, you just confront them based on the fact that they’re breaking the rules, breaking the law,” he said.

He said he has even encountered female public urination under his role as police chief.

“I did and I’ve seen it even as a chief on football game days,” he said. “I’ve run into it. They’re dressed nicely — they have nice shoes on and a very nice dress and they’re squatting there going to the restroom.”

The Athens statute for public urination charges those who decide to relieve themselves in public $210. But the crime deserving of this fine may not even be a consequence of a heavy night of drinking in combination with a shortage of bathrooms.

On average, most downtown bars have three to four stalls for ladies to use.

The bar Sideways, for example, has three stalls.

On any given weekend night, Sideways sees anywhere from 300 to 600 people come in and out of the bar, according to Co-owner Baker Martin.

He said, however, the longest line for the restroom was not for the female restroom, but for the male restroom.

“Normally it is the guys bathrooms that have the longer lines just because of where it is in the bar,” he said. “When you walk straight back, that’s the guys’ so a lot of people get cut off when you’re going to the deck.”

Martin said he and his staff have caught males urinating in places other than the restrooms.

“We’ve caught people going in the stairwell peeing before, peeing off the deck, out in the hallways, out in the back door,” he said. “They’re excuse will be they didn’t know where the bathroom was or the line was too long.”

But Martin said none of the offenders he has ever encountered are females.

“I don’t think I’ve ever caught a girl,” he said. “If I have, I didn’t know it.”

He said cleaning up after these offenders and others was the worst part of the night, but his crew had a good routine settled which made it go by much faster when bartenders are ready to go home at the end of the night.

Still those customers who do make it out of the bar but decide the walk to the next bar or the walk home is too long to hold it may find themselves arrested.

The five public urination cases reported by The Red & Black all included alcohol related charges, and according to Williamson, urinating in public whether you are male or female may be the tip that pushes officers to arrest.

“You’re bringing attention to yourself if you decide to urinate,” he said. “Some people don’t even try to conceal themselves. They’re either squatting out on the sidewalk or between two cars or out in the middle of the street. But they’re not in their sound mind.”


Athens officials seek to solve panhandling downtown

It is 3 p.m. on the prettiest day in Athens in weeks, and downtown Athens is bustling with students and citizens sharing the sidewalks and soaking up the sunlight. But there is something putting a damper on the lovely day—a group of people off-putting to most downtown frequenters. Finally, Athens officials are poised to take new steps to curb this problem that downtown business owners consider a nuisance – panhandling.

How?

That is a question Kathryn Lookofsky, director of Athens Downtown Development Authority, and other Athens officials have spent years trying to answer.

“We have discussed altering the current panhandling ordinance,” Lookofsky said. “I think the biggest solution is to get people not to donate to the panhandlers on the street, but to donate to the charities and services that offer solutions to people who are homeless or have other issues.”

In January, the Athens Legislative Review Committee discussed possibilities for tighter panhandling laws. The committee counseled with Lookofsky to find potential solutions before observing panhandling laws in cities across the country to find a model that would fit Athens.

The committee looked at Macon, Augusta, Atlanta, and Savannah, as well as Charlotte, N.C., Charlottesville, Va., Rockford, Ill., Miami Beach, Fla., and Tacoma, Wash.

Kinman, an Athens commissioner that serves on the Legislation Review Committee, said the committee will make a recommendation next week to the Athens commission, which will either accept or reject the recommendation. If accepted, the commission will vote on the ordinance within the next two months.

“The question the commission is asking itself is what is the problem we are trying to solve and what’s the public benefit from solving this problem,” said Kinman. “Businesses feel [panhandling] is keeping people away from downtown and, therefore, hurting the overall economy downtown, which of course affects the rest of the community.”

One student at the University of Virginia believes Athens could benefit from the model used in Charlottesville. The city has an area called “The Corner” with bars and restaurants similar to downtown Athens.

“Panhandling is much more passive at ‘The Corner’ than downtown Athens,” said Jordan Fulton, of Alpharetta, who transferred to UVA from the University of Georgia after his sophomore year. “In Charlottesville, panhandlers are loiters, not beggars. They don’t necessarily leave, but they just sit there. In Athens, they approach and beg.”

Athens installed parking meters on the two corners where College Avenue meets Broad Street and two more where College Avenue meets Clayton Street in 2003. The goal was to have downtown visitors donate via the meters instead of putting money directly in panhandlers’ pockets. The money from the meters is then given to homeless shelters and organizations in the Athens area.

Nearly a decade after the meters’ installation, Lookofsky believes the meters helped curve the panhandling problem but acknowledges the problem has not been resolved.

“They have been a success,” said Lookofsky. “They don’t provide near enough money to solve the problem. Everybody could have a meter, and it wouldn’t solve the problem.”

As for how much money the meters collect, Lookofsky said that fluctuates with the seasons and differs from year to year.

Just as donations come and go, panhandlers move with the activity of downtown Athens.

“[Panhandling] depends on the activities going on downtown,” said Lookofsky.  “If there’s a big show at the Georgia Theatre or someplace, there will be more [panhandlers] out. If it’s pretty weather and there are people out on sidewalk cafes, they’ll be out.”

Lookofsky also said that students can perpetuate the activity of panhandlers.

“If there’s an influx of new students, [panhandlers] will be out,” said Lookofsky.

A recent study by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing showed that students are more likely to give to panhandlers than any other group, which may indicate the heavy presence of panhandlers near the University campus in Athens.

Jake Vaverka, a junior at the University of Georgia, lives in downtown Athens and has had several experiences with panhandlers.

“Every time I go to put change in the [parking] meter, I get asked for money,” said Vaverka, who also works downtown during evenings at The Mad Hatter. “I pass the same [panhandlers] every morning, and they never ask. It happens more at night.”

One city’s panhandling model that Athens officials have discussed adopting works to cease begging for money at night. Charlotte, N.C., made it illegal to panhandle after dark, as well as at ATMs and outdoor dining areas. Athens officials discussed a similar ordinance.

“Downtown business owners and the Athens visitors bureau are interested in limiting panhandling in certain situations, like when people are at places where money is being exchanged,” said Kinman. “They’re suggesting we limit panhandling a certain distance from parking meters, ATM machines and outdoor cafes.”

Kinman believes if changes are made the ordinance will reflect the wishes of business owners.  However, aside from restrictions near locations where money is exchanged, the current ordinance would remain everywhere else.

The law currently in Athens maintains that only aggressive panhandlers can be prosecuted and face a $70 fine. Lookofsky said that if visitors encounter an aggressive panhandler, they must call the police.

Kinman said one issue with the current law is that “the bar is set pretty high for aggressive panhandling.”

According to the current law, aggressive panhandling includes the approached person receives or fears bodily harm or the panhandler continued asking after receiving a negative response. Impeding a person’s path after denial also falls under aggressive panhandling.

The future ordinance requires victims of panhandling to report the incident and testify in court, a problem Kinman said may keep the solution from working.

“One advantage of a law that says you cannot panhandle within a certain amount of feet from specific locations is that it is pretty easy to get a visual of where that person was standing when he or she asks you for money,” said Kinman. “But in order for panhandlers to be prosecuted, the victim has to testify in court. That’s a real obstacle to the ordinance being enforced since a lot of victims are visitors and don’t want to come back to Athens for that reason.”

The committee must find a way to not violate the First Amendment when creating the new law, according to Kinman.

“It’s tough to say how you differentiate freedom of speech for someone you know asking you for money downtown and a stranger asking you for a dollar,” Kinman said. “If you banned panhandling, you’d be saying a homeless person is allowed to say anything but cannot ask for money.”

Kinman said the Legislative Review Committee is responsible for reviewing court cases involving the panhandling model in cities that officials are considering.

“There have been instances where government can limit speech as long as there’s a public benefit. That’s when [the ordinance] holds up in court,” said Kinman. “That’s what we’re looking at.”

Lookofsky said that if the ordinance passes gauging its success would be simple.

“We’d see less complaints from visitors and guests downtown about being harassed on the streets for money,” said Lookofsky.

Kinman said the amount of complaints would be one of two ways to gauge the success of a new law.

“Another thing to look at would be how many actual arrests or prosecutions from panhandling,” Kinman said. “If those go up, maybe that is the measure of success.”

Lookofsky believes panhandling will still occur if the new law passes.

“I don’t know that we can end [panhandling], but we can be more aggressive about discouraging it,” said Lookofsky, who thinks educating the public about services to help people with their needs will go a long way towards curving the panhandling problem.

“If panhandlers weren’t making money, they wouldn’t be out there,” Lookofsky said.

Until the commission votes, the panhandlers continue to hover over visitors like a dark cloud over downtown Athens even on the sunniest days.