Time to bite the bullet and move on 

MOST NOTEWORTHY CONVERSATIONS in Savannah take place in bars. A week or so ago I had one such talk with a gentleman who moved here from another notable Southern city, one which like ours is majority black with majority white suburbs.

He described to me how about fifteen years ago his beautiful city was full of promise, full of potential, full of cafes and restaurants and new businesses and vibrant downtown street life.

Like Savannah is now.

Then, he related, there was a particularly nasty dispute in city government that was split along racial lines.

Then another. And another. And another.

Once it started, he said, no one seemed able or willing to stop it.

"Think of the stories you're reading in the paper now about Savannah politics," he said. "Now imagine reading that every single morning for fifteen years straight."

When the national economic downturn came, his hometown was by then already riven by deep-seated racial animosity, just as it once was in the ‘60s.

His city's now in sad decline: Downtown hurting, businesses closing or leaving, crime on the increase, ugly and very personal racial politics dominating every aspect of city life.

Don't deceive yourself into thinking the same can't happen here, the man told me.

"When I moved to Savannah the biggest issue here was armbands on St. Patrick's Day," he said. "But that could change overnight."

The ongoing saga over who will be Savannah's next city manager could -- should? -- come to an end at the next City Council meeting, when elected officials have an opportunity to try once more to find some way forward, however dissatisfying to many voters.

My friend at the bar had a solution, one based on his years of bitter experience in another once-promising Southern city:

"One of the white council members just needs to bite the bullet and vote for her."

By "her," of course he meant that in the interest of unity and consensus, one or more white aldermen need to put their pride aside and vote to hire Rochelle Small-Toney.

Otherwise the ugly racial aspect of this dispute will begin to affect all local politics in the future, to the detriment of everyone who lives, works, runs a business, and pays taxes here.

If she doesn't work out, he said, we can fire her after a few years -- as is the case with just about every other city manager in the country at some point or another anyway.

However bitter a pill to swallow, having a less-than-optimum city manager for awhile is still much better than racial strife which will eventually hollow out the local economy in ways much more profound than any screw-up Small-Toney could make.

The bottom line is this: Small-Toney may not be everyone's first choice in a city manager candidate. She's not even my first choice.

But she is technically qualified for the job, and sometime's that's got to be good enough.

The bond "issue" is a non-issue. Contrary to a lot of misinformation out there, as of this writing there is currently no city ordinance requiring Small-Toney to have a million dollar personal bond. (The only required bond is a $50,000 one, which she has secured.)

And however inflammatory were Mayor Otis Johnson's recent videotaped remarks to a black audience at a local church -- majority rule means fifty percent plus one, Johnson said from the pulpit, and "we've got six percentage points to spare" - the truth is he's right.

There is a black majority in Savannah, and if those voters want a black city manager badly enough, they're going to get one regardless.

It's ironic and deeply disappointing that Mayor Johnson, who built his career on fighting for civil rights - which is all about protecting the rights of the minority against tyranny by the majority - would, late in life and flush with power, so completely embrace the tyrant's motto of "might makes right."

But the time to complain is over. Now it’s time for others to show the wisdom that Johnson has refused to display.  Sometimes leadership is about knowing when “fighting the good fight” means surviving to fight another day.

The wise move right now — if not the most satisfying one — would be for Council to reconsider Alderman Clifton Jones’ recent unseconded motion to hire Small–Toney.

At least one white alderman needs to cross over, so that the vote cannot be described with those three horrific words, “along racial lines.”

And then we move on.

Sometimes wisdom takes unusual forms, and comes from unexpected places.













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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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