IT'S ABOUT a strict pecking order and complex rules of social standing. It’s about betrayal, envy and subtle mutual acrimony. It’s about interesting and unusual accents.
Oh, and the hit PBS show Downton Abbey is also about all those things.
Watching Savannah City Council on the most recent webcast at the excellent City Government channel vividly reminded me of the uber–popular British series, now airing Sunday nights on your friendly local Georgia Public Broadcasting station.
But Downton Abbey is entertainment. It’s supposed to be kind of ridiculous. (Full disclosure: I’m a fan. Yeah, I said it.)
Your City Council isn’t supposed to get swept away in Masterpiece Theatre episodes of court intrigue like the recent one involving “officers of the council.”
Here’s the synopsis for the latest episode of the long–running drama:
Alderman Tony Thomas wanted other council members to elect him Mayor Pro Tem, the person who runs council meetings when the actual mayor, now Edna Jackson, is sick or out of town. But he withdrew when he realized Alderman Van Johnson had the votes locked up.
Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague also wanted to be Mayor Pro Tem. But, realizing it was down to Thomas and Johnson, she then made herself available for colleagues to appoint her “Chairman of Council.”
She didn’t get that either: Thomas did.
Sprague also didn’t get the “Vice Chair” spot — Alderwoman Mary Osborne did.
But in a twist, Mayor Jackson seemingly awarded a new position, “Assistant Vice Chair,” to Sprague as a consolation prize. As near as I can reckon, Sprague is now supposed to, in Mayor Jackson’s words, “work closely with me getting ready for LOST and TSPLOST,” i.e., raising your taxes.
City Attorney James Blackburn, under whose tenure City Council has committed numerous violations of state open meetings law, assured Jackson she had the power to invent a position for Sprague according to the City charter. Feel better?
Meanwhile, when newly elected Alderman Tom Bordeaux heard that his arch–nemesis and bitter enemy Tony Thomas would be Chairman of Council, he interrupted and said, “Now wait a second. I haven’t cast a single vote for that.”
(When a guy who served years in the dysfunctional Georgia House of Representatives thinks your meeting is out of order, that might be a red flag!)
And that’s just what we saw in public. In true Downton Abbey fashion, most of the real action happened behind closed doors.
Jackson and Thomas and Sprague met in yet another one of those likely illegal closed meetings for which Savannah is becoming notorious throughout the state.
I’d love to tell you what they said, but well... the meeting was closed.
There you have it, soap opera fans.
The funniest thing about all this is how devoid of actual responsibility these titles are — especially considering how little power the real Mayor of Savannah has in the charter (a remedy invoked after corrupt administrations in the ‘50s).
The Mayor of Savannah, truth be told, does little more than hold the gavel and run council meetings. Granted, that’s not a small job, and the bully pulpit is a powerful tool for change (both positive or negative, as former Mayor Otis Johnson showed us). But it’s essentially one vote out of nine.
The Mayor Pro Tem, then, is basically the person who’s told at a concert, hey, can you watch my seat while I go to the bathroom?
I’m not sure why this position is widely seen as a springboard to the mayor job — so much so that, before becoming mayor, Edna Jackson generally referred to herself as Mayor Pro Tem rather than the title to which she was actually elected by the people, Alderman at Large.
But hey, it seemed to work for her.
As for “Chairman of Council” and the quasi–mythical “Vice Chairman,” they seem to be ceremonial positions meant to assuage the feelings of whichever hyper–sensitive, upward–climbing council members didn’t stroke enough other hyper–sensitive egos on council to get the Mayor Pro Tem nod.
“This has been a very trying situation,” Mayor Jackson said to the council at the most recent workshop session before the formal meeting. “I want us to have a united front when we go out in the chambers.”
I appreciate Mayor Jackson’s sincerity, and I appreciate that she’s trying to preemptively reduce the simmering levels of competitive resentment on City Council before they really get out of hand — something her predecessor notably could not or would not do.
But I question this commonly-held idea that a City Council or County Commission must always present “a united front.”
Why should they? Aren’t they elected to serve their constituents, not each other?
When you say you’re going to tailor your vote to get a “united front,” aren’t you saying the opinions of your fellow politicians are more important than the opinions of the actual voters you represent?
And doesn’t that lead to ridiculous British soap opera situations like giving people meaningless honorary titles in addition to the ones to which they’ve been elected?
I don’t want to sound hypocritical — it’s true that I also didn’t appreciate it when there were plenty of very contentious 5–4 votes on Otis Johnson’s watch.
We’d all prefer that elected officials get along. But a “united front” is only worth something when the thing being voted on is commonly held to be so important that everyone should agree on the way forward.
In most situations, voters and taxpayers are served better when the politicians they elect actually do their job, i.e., fight for their constituents, whether the final vote tally is 5–4 or 9–0.
We fought the British in order to have the right for each of us to be represented fairly. Let Downton Abbey be Downton Abbey, and City Council be City Council.