Mayor on Mind will be a recurring column that features accessible platform and policy interviews with the candidates for Mayor of Athens-Clarke County. The election will take place in May of 2018.
As music loudly played in the main room of Walker’s and the lights flickered, a pensive man relaxed with a cup of tea and pondered his career in social work and teaching.
Kelly Girtz said that he plans to take his experience to the mayor’s office of Athens, Georgia.
Girtz, 45, has served on the Athens-Clarke County Commission since 2007, where he represents district 9. District 9 starts in downtown Athens at the intersection of Barber Street and Prince Avenue, and then fans out to the northeastern border of the county. He lives on Pulaski Street with his wife, Andrea, and their five-year-old son Noah.
Girtz grew up in the Norfolk, Virginia, area;a child in a military family. He said his father worked hard to be assigned to naval bases nearby so that there would be stability for the family.
After living there for over 20 years, Girtz moved to Athens for graduate school in the mid 90’s, and has lived in the city since then.
As for his interest in politics, he said that his involvement began in the ’80s, centered around advocacy for the environment and human rights concerns, both of which play heavily into his current campaign today.
“[Environmentalism] is something that I’ve always been an advocate for. A strong sense of environmental responsibility in local government is important,” Girtz said. “I think I have put that on the radar of both elected officials and staff in a way that it hasn’t been otherwise.”
Girtz specifically mentioned his work related to protecting Athens’ waterways and reforming the county government’s solid waste management system as important efforts to continue.
“I’m excited about the prospect of going to 100 percent renewable energy for the government’s use, which is something that we need to make a plan to do,” Girtz said. “We can do that through biomass and solar technology, so that’s a key part of my platform.”
Girtz developed an interest in public policy and educational policy during his undergraduate years, when he worked as an intern at the local Child Protective Services office. In that role, he visited the homes of children who had been reported as potential victims of abuse and neglect. Specifically, he worked under the office’s trauma case worker.
“There were some pretty significant things that we had to deal with in that capacity, and through that experience and other things that I covered in coursework, it became very clear to me that what the public sector fails to do has an enormous impact on the quality of life of people,” Girtz said.
“You see it in a pretty stark way when you’re talking about kids, welfare and hunger. So that was the spark for me.”
Girtz said that over time, he began to believe that local government is the best point of access for services that the public needs. By the time he came to Athens as a graduate student, he began to actively watch the county commission as an interested observer, and also volunteered on other officials’ campaigns. When the district 9 seat opened, Girtz decided to run and he won.
While he was initially interested in pursuing a full-time career in social work, he eventually became interested in education. From 1998 to 2014, Girtz worked as an educator and administrator for the Clarke County School District, first at W.R. Coile Middle School, and by the end of that time period, he was the principal of Classic City High School.
Classic City High is Clarke County’s alternative school, where students go if they cannot or choose not to attend the one of the county’s two traditional high schools. As a result, many of Girtz’ students often faced family troubles, had struggled in school previously or had children themselves.
Girtz said that factors varying from employment opportunities, neighborhood safety, zoning, and access to transportation are crucial local government responsibilities that can make a significant difference in the quality of life of local citizens.
“It’s pretty clear that if things go well for a child, things are more likely than not to continue to go well for them throughout their adult life, and if things go poorly, it’s more likely than not that will continue throughout their life,” Girtz said. “Public work, in my mind, ought to at least lay out the foundation, so as many young people as possible can grow up with a real shot at success. Not some fantastical, theoretical shot at success.”