In July, Rochelle Small–Toney will celebrate her third anniversary of working with the City of Savannah. But it’s only in the last few months that she’s found herself in the spotlight.
Following the departures of both City Manager Michael Brown and Assistant City Manager Chris Morrill, City Council chose her as the interim City Manager, but she’s hoping to be more than just a place holder.
Small–Toney, who has spent more than two and a half decades working in city management, came to Savannah after spending many years as an Assistant City Manager in Danville, Va. and then Charlottesville, Va.
While Council plans to conduct a national search before making what is widely seen as the most important decision of their tenure – selecting the most powerful non–elected official in the city – Small–Toney is hoping to prove that she is the best candidate for the job.
We met with her at City Hall to discuss her qualifications, what she sees for the future of Savannah, and how she plans to fill the big shoes left by her predecessor.
In the three years you’ve been Assistant City Manager here, what project best demonstrates your leadership abilities?
Rochelle Small–Toney: One is Savannah Gardens. That was one of the first projects I got involved in, literally, maybe the first or second week I came to Savannah. It’s taken multiple agencies to bring that forward, as well as other bureaus within the City. That particular project also amplifies the priorities of City Council to remove blight from neighborhoods and then to reseed it with affordable housing as part of the poverty reduction initiative.
The other part would be things I’ve had to do within the bureau to make our services more accessible to the community. We moved a department (Development Services) from the Gamble Building, where it was grossly inadequate for serving customers, out to Abercorn. In addition to that, addressing some of the inspection and permitting issues, having properly certified property maintenance inspectors – this is the first time in the city’s history that they are ICC certified and credentialed inspectors. There are lots of things I can point to.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for you personally among the myriad duties of the City Manager position?
Rochelle Small–Toney: To be able to manage the city very well in such a way where it doesn’t encompass my entire life. This is the kind of job where, if you’re not careful, it can spill over into your home life and your personal life. Now that my children are up and it’s an empty nest for the most part, I still have these issues with my husband, but he’s been through this so many times, I think he’s used to coming home and I’m not there. I think the biggest challenge is just to keep the professional separate from the personal.
You have experience with housing and development, but do you feel you have the necessary experience when it comes to budgeting, particularly during these difficult economic times?
Rochelle Small–Toney: Absolutely. Actually I have about 14 years of budgeting experience prior to even coming to Savannah. That was gained through 5 years as a budget analyst in the City of Wilmington, and the other 8 years in the City of Danville, Virginia, where I started out as Assistant to the City Manager for Budget and Management Analysis. Being able to now fuse my HR experience, my budgeting experience and my development experience, I think really rounds out my overall abilities and experiences to manage the City of Savannah.
What do you see as the major priorities for the city looking ahead over the next 10 years?
Rochelle Small–Toney: Obviously, it’s the financial stability of the city, being able to ride through these periods where we’re in a recession, being able to save money, being able to deliver good quality and efficient services. That’s what public service is all about.
Savannah is on an important pinnacle right now. We talk about the deepening of the harbor, development on Hutchinson Island and along the riverwalk, improvements in the neighborhoods; these are all healthy signs of a very robust future for the city, but if we’re not careful and we don’t do that in a very strategic way with the County in particular, then our growth will continue to be a bit fragmented. We are going to grow, but I think it’s an issue of being able to manage that growth and be able to do it in a smart way.
Although there’s a variety of public opinion on the tenure of Michael Brown, there’s no arguing that the past 15 years have been a high watermark for growth. From your experience working with him, is there anything you would have done differently?
Rochelle Small–Toney: All managers look at some things differently, but you usually end up in the same place. If your focus is truly on delivering efficient and effective services, then that’s where you’re going to go. No, I wouldn’t say there’s anything I would have done differently. My approach might be a little different, but the end result would have been the same. You end up with a city that is very financially sound in terms of its management. You have a good, qualified group of employees. There are a lot of things that were in place that will continue to be in place to manage the city effectively.
Looking at economic development along Broughton and MLK, both have been successful because of a combined effort between public and private investment, will that same formula work for the Waters Avenue corridor, or is something different going to need to be done to turn that area around?
Rochelle Small–Toney: You have to be able to incentivize redevelopment in some of these areas and the city can’t do it alone. There has to be an infusion of city resources, but those resources would have to be leveraged into the private arena. That’s when the growth really starts to take off. That’s what I expect we would do. We’ve been very successful, as you’ve pointed out, in many ways, along Broughton and MLK. There’s still work to be done, but it has been an incentive to move things along.
The plans to move the police precincts over to Waters will have impacts. Is that step one and then things fall into place, or are there other plans the city will try to use?
Rochelle Small–Toney: You’re aware of the tremendous effort in terms of community involvement and discussions. The other thing is to incentivize the development, and one way to do that is to put the cash out there. You want to be able to take care of some of the issues like crime and blight to make the area attractive so that people will want to invest. In an economy like this, it’s a little difficult to put cash out there for someone to leverage it in the private market, so while we’re waiting for the market to come back up, we’re still working on the community process and the blight issues. Once the police precinct is built there, it will address a lot of the crime and hanging around that really don’t appear attractive to someone who wants to invest there.
By consolidating two precincts over there, is there a risk that it will only shift the problems? That essentially it becomes a cat and mouse game – wherever we move a precinct stabilizes. If you look at Thomas Square, while the neighborhood has improved over the last 5 or 6 years, is there a risk that once that’s not there anymore, it begins to regress?
Rochelle Small–Toney: I don’t want to steal Chief Lovett’s thunder, but he and I have had discussions about not putting two precincts on Waters Avenue for that very reason. Soon you’ll hear him talk about the necessity to only have one precinct there, and then look for another place on the westside to relocate the other precinct so we disperse that, and don’t have the concentration of police services just on one side of the city.
If you’re made permanent City Manager, how would you deal with the stalling of the Savannah River Landing development? Is there anything the city can do or are everyone’s hands tied waiting to see what happens with the market?
Rochelle Small–Toney: We are talking with the new owners about what is going to happen there. It is a very strategic piece of property. The more we can do to help incentivize and work along with the current owners, then that’s what we’re going to do. It’s not in a wait and see mode at all. It was for a little bit while the ownership went through the situation they were involved in, but now it’s in new ownership. We’re currently in partnership, but it’s their project.
It’s not a city project, but with the redevelopment of West Bay–Hudson Hill and the widening of West Bay Street there’s been a lot of talk about businesses that will be displaced. Where is the line between necessary infrastructure improvements and the desires of individual community members?
Rochelle Small–Toney: I think really, in that sense, that’s more of a question for GDOT and the County because the city is not involved in that. We are following what’s going on in terms of impact on those business owners, but that’s not something the city would get involved in. We will work with the neighborhood association president for both Hudson Hill and West Savannah, and we will direct them to whatever assistance we can provide. We won’t get involved in the legal and governmental issues that are involved with that.
If you aren’t given the permanent position, will that affect your relationship with Council and your willingness to continue as Assistant City Manager?
Rochelle Small–Toney: It won’t affect my relationship with the City Council. I can’t speak to the future in terms of what I would do, but there wouldn’t be any adverse feelings about that.
Why are you the best candidate?
Rochelle Small–Toney: I have spent about 26 years in local government management. I’ve worked in areas of HR, budgeting, and community redevelopment and development. I’ve prepared for this opportunity, it’s just that it happens to be Savannah, and that’s a good thing. I’m here and I know the community better and better each day. I certainly know the employees even more so because I’ve worked with many of them up and down the organization.
It hasn’t been ten years, but it has been a journey for me. It has been a journey of not only experience but preparation. In addition, I have a certain sensitivity to the needs of communities, and a variety of communities, whether it’s poor communities, the business community, whoever it is. There’s a certain sensitivity and a certain passion that you bring to a job to really want to make a community better.
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