'Extravagance and utter disregard' 

A HUNDRED AND FIFTY BUCKS isn't a lot of money. It's not as much as, say, $160, which is the amount of unauthorized petty cash expenses that eventually ended up getting two Savannah Film Office employees fired and Film Office Director Jay Self suspended for a week by City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney.

But $150 will apparently rent you a shuttle ride for 15 people in downtown Atlanta, from the Hyatt Regency to Ray's In The City to get a bite to eat.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with that particular stretch of Peachtree Street. I stayed at the Hyatt just a few weeks ago, which makes this story even more laughable to me than it seems on paper.

Here's the punchline:

The distance from the Hyatt to Ray's? 351 feet.

Drivetime from 265 Peachtree to 240 Peachtree? 21 seconds, according to Google Maps.

Of course, as many of you know by now, one of the passengers on that half-block shuttle ride -- if indeed the shuttle ever ran at all -- was none other than Small-Toney herself, in Atlanta last January for the annual Mayor's Day Conference.

To give full credit where it's due, this was just one tidbit in an excellent piece over the weekend by Leslie Conn published by our competition, the Savannah Morning News.

Conn's devastating piece chronicled a City Manager's office which doesn't practice what it preaches, an office which insists on laser-like precision on the part of everyone else's accounting, but is itself content to handwrite its own homemade receipts and backdate them after the fact for reimbursement (the case with the notorious half-block shuttle ride).

Online, the piece unfortunately bears the numbingly nondescript headline "Savannah City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney's travel reports violate city policy," which is sort of like saying "Theater shooting inconveniences moviegoers." But that didn't keep it from going viral.

(Note to Leslie, just between us: It's fiscal year budget time. If I were you I'd carry a copy of that story with you all day and start waving it around whenever dudes with suits walk by. Maybe they'll take some money from the editor who wrote that headline and throw it your way instead.)

Some other highlights (boldface mine):

• "Small-Toney routinely submitted travel reports two, three and five months after a trip, and final receipts for several hotel bills and a rental car agreement were not submitted. Instead, email printouts of booking confirmations were submitted along with a line item from her online checking account statement."

• While at the National Forum for Black Public Administrators last April 20-26 in Virginia Beach, Va., "Documents provided show the city manager billed the city $254 for an extra night's stay so she could stay to play" in a golf tournament. She also "rented an SUV, costing the city more than $660, plus $50 in gas and $100 in parking."

• Small-Toney receives cash advances from the City before travel (!). For the Virginia trip she got a cash advance of $2,125 and billed the city another $547. "She also notified council she had reimbursed the city the $100 entry fee to play in the tournament, though no record of the check was found."

• "An employee can take per diem or submit receipts, not both," as has been Small-Toney's usual practice.

But in a way, perhaps the following item is the most damning in the long term:

"The cost for the city manager's travel from Nov. 2010-April 2012 was $19,205."

Wow. Stop and think about that. You should, since you're the one that paid for it.

Folks, I'm lucky enough to have done a lot of traveling in my life. If I were to spend 19 grand on travel over a year and half, some of the words you'd be hearing would be Paris, London, Florence, Barcelona, Greek islands. Vodka shots with Vladimir Putin to try and talk him into letting Pussy Riot out of jail.

And I might still have money left over.

"Extravagance and utter disregard" is how a Facebook friend of mine described Small-Toney's behavior and personal use of taxpayer funds. I've heard no other phrase that better sums it up.

Small-Toney is surely not the first employee, public or private, to broker deals over 18 holes. And surely not the first to game the system to squeeze more reimbursement money from taxpayers.

But she's established a pattern: Heavy-handed use of power with regards to other City employees, lax observance of her own rules when it stands to benefit her directly.

And running through it all is the real core issue: She is allowed to do this by her bosses, Savannah City Council. Even encouraged by our local system in which the City's auditing department reports directly to...

Small-Toney herself!

When confronted with her city manager's cavalier use of taxpayer funds, Mayor Edna Jackson told Conn she "hoped the city's system had enough flexibility and trust of its employees to allow rare exceptions."

I agree 100 percent, Madame Mayor.

I suspect the Savannah Film Office might also agree. As would the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, which Small-Toney also gutted after its own accounting scandal.

Another Facebook friend asked if perhaps some of these City employees who'd been terminated for misuse of funds might now have cause to sue for wrongful termination, since there's demonstrably one set of rules for one office of City government and another set for the rest of them.

The irony there being that if the City loses, the taxpayers would pay for that, too... cs


About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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