The City tried to put the ‘public' back in public policy at its third town hall meeting of the year, although severe rain and thunderstorms probably cut attendance down to a fraction of what it would have been under normal circumstances.
If you've never been to one of the City's town hall meetings, the appeal is that the floor is opened to the average citizen so that they can express themselves directly to city officials, including the mayor, city council and the city manager, who are seated at the front of the room.
The event, which was championed by Mayor Johnson, allows citizens a unique level of access to their government officials, and offers the opportunity to voice concerns about anything from minor grievances to major issues that might not be getting the attention they deserve.
Wednesday evening's town hall meeting had a decidedly different feel than past occurrences. While the event has always opened with reports from city departments about progress made during the previous quarter, the program last night opened with a video produced by the Public Information Office outlining a laundry list of programs currently underway in the city, including: the Savannah Entrepreneurial Center (which has served record numbers this year), The Tremont Temple Computer Center (part of City efforts to close the digital divide in our community), $3 million in MWBE contracts, the Bank On Savannah program (including a special recorded message from former President Bill Clinton), a brief mention that Part 1 crimes are up this year, an introduction to Operation Identification (where someone from the police will come and etch serial numbers into your possessions so that they are easier to track if stolen), the Thrive Initiative (wherein the City will try to reduce it's carbon footprint by 15% over 10 years), the Dump the Pump Challenge, Operation Clean Sweep, the expansion of 311 call hours, and the upcoming Citizens Academy.
While it's impressive that the city has been so ambitious with the scope and reach of its programs, the video could have been shown on Government Channel 8 for a week ahead of time, and cut a substantial portion of time from the meeting, or opened the floor up to the public a little sooner.
With over three inches of rain falling in less than an hour, drainage was certainly an issue that was on everyone's mind last night. The video went on to illuminate over $170 million in capital programs undertaken by the City to improve drainage. Since 1994, there have been three new pump stations and countless gutters, catch basins and ponds, among other improvements.
Although the city's topography seems appreciably flat, there are small dips and ridges that make drainage a problem for certain communities, but rest assured, things are getting better, and here is a friendly old couple to talk about how bad things used to be before the City stepped in to improve things in their neighborhood. Hurrah.
Already an hour into the meeting, the evening had been almost entirely consumed by unassailable videos promoting the city without any of the dialogue promised by the usual town hall meeting. Some of the information presented was welcome, but the question rearing its head was ‘is this what we came for?'
The videos were followed by PowerPoint presentations, including City Manager Michael Brown giving a lengthy talk about the problem of homelessness in our city, and what the Chatham County Homeless Authority was doing, how it was doing it, and what else needed to be done, including a need to "take a look at the continuum of care" to ensure that there were no gaps in service, because "we are our brother's keeper."
While that is a surely a noble pursuit, it is hardly breaking news, and in light of the fact that the city is facing a budget deficit in the tens of millions, which will result in cutting funding for programs across the board, homelessness is hardly the question that is at the forefront of most people's minds because it is not a new problem in any sense.
Chatham County has over 25% of Georgia's homeless population (5,500 out of 19,000), and that is something we certainly need to deal with, but was last night the time to do so? Although there was a brief mention of a 10 year plan to reduce homelessness that was approved in 2004, there was no mention of how effectively that plan was working, or whether there were any metrics in place to evaluate improvements on the issue.
From homelessness, we moved to another perennial hot button issue: Youth. The mayor recognized the 20 or so members of Chatham County Youth Commission who were in attendance, which was followed by a presentation Edward Chisholm from the Youth Futures Authority, who delivered the breaking news that we "have to get a better environment for children to grow up in...because children are a product of their environment."
Maybe the reason that these Authority presentations seemed more like stalling than an honest attempt to inform the citizens about the problems facing our community was that the Homeless Authority was founded in 1989, and the Youth Futures Authority was founded in 1988, and not only do these continue to be two of the largest issues facing quality of life in Savannah, but they have remained steadily so, if not gotten worse, in the last 20 years.
This presentation segued into a progress report from the African American Male Initiative who has been tasked with the unenviable mission of ascertaining whether the school system's disciplinary policies were doing more harm than good.
In one of the few truly enlightening moments of the meetings first two hours, the AAMI discussed a letter of recommendations that had been sent to the school board, which had received a less than satisfactory response letter outlining programs that were already in place, including start and end dates, without any evaluation of how successful those programs had been, and which failed to reference even once the lengthy set of recommendations laid out by the AAMI. No one from the school board was present at the meeting to defend their position on the issue.
The minor outrage over the school board's perceived failure to address a significant local problem, which seemed to barely register among the now completely subdued audience, was followed by yet another presentation by the Prison Fellowship's Out4Life program.
In his introduction of the presentation, the mayor stated, "we have no system of re-entry for these inmates," and that our system has created "a pipeline from the cradle to prison."
This lead to yet another video presentation, albeit one with strikingly superior production values to anything done by the City, outlining the difficulties for ex-convicts who are released from prison, and why our system promotes recidivism by failing to offer any realistic opportunities for improvement.
Once they were finished, it was just shy of 9 p.m. and it was time to hand out door prizes, via a raffle, to award a lucky ticket holder for being civic-minded enough to want to attend the town hall meeting, and share their perspective and experience with City officials. By this point, the audience numbers had dwindled significantly, and it was time to open the floor to comments from the public.