On January 8, 2019, Kelly Girtz was sworn into his new role as Mayor of Athens-Clarke County, but almost a week prior, he was DJ Everything Girtz. New Year’s Eve-goers could find him at the roof of the Georgia Theatre with his “Six Decades of Funk” playlist. Stumbling across the information was surprising at first, the kind of thing you might think is a hoax, but after meeting Girtz and experiencing his jovial and joking manner, it’s quite easy to see him playing DJ for an hour for a good cause. With a bit of surprise that this not-so-secret temporary persona was uncovered, he laughs and says it was a blast and really only something that would happen in Athens. “It’s the kind of thing in a vibrant, multi-layered community like Athens that you get to do when you’re mayor,” says Girtz. To lure him into DJ’ing, the folks at the venue said they’d donate his payment to a charity of his choice. He picked Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens, an organization that supports communities and neighborhoods to enhance educational outcomes; he also sits on their board of directors.
Before becoming mayor and before his brief-stint as a NYE DJ, 47-year-old Girtz had a career in public education. Although he had to resign from his position in order to take over the full-time responsibilities of being mayor, the people he met and experiences he had during his 20 years in the public education sector greatly impact how he views his new job. “There are things that you can’t unlearn and un-know, and all of those conversations I’ve had with kids and their families and all of those times I’ve sat on their front porch,” Girtz says with a pause, “are deeply part of me and part of the motivation for me to make this city a better place.” He credits his experiences as giving way for him to view Athens’ from a bottom-up mentality, using his knowledge of people’s lived experiences as a guide to reform. “I remain very grounded in that set of experiences.”
Being an Athens-Clarke County Commissioner for twelve years also influences how he looks at his new role. “There are lots and lots and lots of layers to making a community thrive,” he explains. His time as commissioner was an education in local politics, one that he continually uses to his advantage as mayor. “It would be difficult to just walk off the street, as even a very engaged citizen, into the mayoral role, but that transition was eased” because of his familiarity with the various department heads and the cities numerous codes.
His work with the commission is now about long-range planning and trying to provide a forum so he can hear every voice. He held a communication-coordination retreat to learn about the goals and assets that everyone brings to the table; two budget-planning sessions will soon take place; and he plans to have a check-in retreat every quarter. “People learn a lot over the course of a year [and] people see a lot over the course of a year,” explains Girtz. “So for the other elected officials, they ought to have the opportunity for a forum for expression of how we can move the meter even further than we had contemplated at the beginning of our cycle.” A process like this keeps projects at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“I’m someone who has clear goals about what I want to see, so I’ve been able to prepare for the role of mayor so that these specific things were things I could put on the table,” says Girtz. These “things” that he feels passionately about as mayor are “youth development activities, greater breadth of economic development activity, greater equity, greater connectivity throughout the community, [and] more forward-leading criminal justice system activities.” It’s a stacked agenda. He arrives every morning at 7:45 and often doesn’t leave until 6PM, working the occasional night or weekend when the schedule demands.
“I certainly look at [this job] with this sort of great, wide lens because there’s so many things that happen in a town like this,” says Girtz. “I’ve always had an interest in kind of the public realm of policy making, mostly pertaining to its impact on people’s lives, experiences, and health.” Drawing on an internship for a child protective services investigator, his career in public education, his time as county commissioner, and his studies of other communities around the state, region, and country, he understands the value of coordination, communication, and intentionality. “Things don’t happen just because you want them to happen,” he says with a laugh. “They happen because you begin to put some pieces of the puzzle together.”
For example, he wants to bridge the gaps of economic disparity, partly due to geography, that exist in Athens. The city was built during a time when connection to resources wasn’t of importance; it’s just old infrastructure, but something he wants to modernize so anyone can walk from their house to a park or a medical resource. “We are going to reinvest in those communities that have been under-resourced and make sure that those are environments that we completely transform in a way that’s going to serve the health of those individuals living there,” says Girtz. A transcendence from struggle to prosperity doesn’t usually happen on an individual-by-individual basis, rather it’s the structure and foundation of a place being better built, he explains. “That’s the terrain I really want to work for in this job.”
Girtz grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and found himself in Athens by chance. After a scholarship to pay for his graduate degree was defunded, he moved to this city and started working on his Master’s degree in education at Piedmont College. At 24, he definitely thought he’d only be in Athens for a couple of years. “But this is such a vibrant place with fantastic artists and entrepreneurs and great, deep human souls,” says Girtz. “As that love for this town deepened, I first ran for commission, and certainly by the time I moved into my second-term as commissioner, I was fairly certain that if the opportunity arose for me to run for mayor, I was going to take that opportunity.”
Girtz would like to think, that after all this time spent in a city of upwards of 127,000 people, he knows a great deal of them. But, he says with a laugh, “I’m constantly stunned.”
Whether it’s finding out about a band in town that he’s never seen play, a researcher at the University of Georgia doing incredible work, or simply “people who are doing fabulous things that are new to me,” Athens remains a gift that keeps on giving. “I was able to move into adulthood here and gain so much support from people in this town and the fabric of the town itself, that it’s sort of granted me this blessing of being able to help shepherd it into its next era, it’s just wonderful,” Girtz says with a giant grin.
Mayor Kelly Girtz’s office is sparse, but clearly illustrates the kind of man he is. There’s an empty couch, a packed bookshelf, an organized desk with a laptop in the center, and a couple of things on his walls. One is a large, vibrant, seafoam green painting of a horse by local artist Stan Mullins. A portrait of Ray Charles, by local artist Broderick Flanigan, overlooks a table with two chairs that sit facing one another, poised for a conversation. Lastly, there’s a child’s drawing above his desk, a gift from his kindergartener son Noah. It’s the first thing he sees when he raises his eyes from his desk. He wants to tackle some of the challenges he sees in Athens and leave the city a bit better than he found it for his son and that generation. “Parenting is a really tangible reminder that our days are numbered,” Girtz says with a rumbling laugh. “I better be conscious about using this time well.”