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Who's really to blame for city manager fiasco? 

THERE ARE TWO KINDS of bullies in this world:

1) The bullies who swagger up to you, stick their finger in your chest, and take your lunch money;

2) The bullies who convene meetings, establish a "consensus" through groupthink, lecture you about "transparency" and "teachable moments," and then take your lunch money.

Truth be told, I prefer the former, because at least I know where they stand.

Before we get into the thorny issues surrounding the search for a permanent Savannah city manager, let's get a few facts straight:

• You can't blame acting city manager Rochelle Small-Toney for seeking a better position for herself in her chosen field.

• While she shouldn't be given the job solely because she's an African American female, nor should she be penalized for that.

• Small-Toney didn't force Michael Brown to resign after 15 years and leave the job open.

• Small-Toney didn't force City Council to pay her a higher salary than Michael Brown.

• Small-Toney didn't hire the search firm that returned several compromised candidates (for more on that, read Patrick Rodgers' story this issue).

• Given the volume and complexity of city ordinances, it's conceivable that Small-Toney was unaware she had to secure a $50,000 bond.

• But there is a veteran city attorney for whom it is inconceivable he didn't know she was required by City charter to secure a bond.

• Small-Toney's initial difficulty being underwritten -- she was finally bonded last week after a week of ham-handed evasive tactics by the City -- doesn't necessarily point to something in her past that should disqualify her.

• But the fact that the entire apparatus of city government was mobilized to stifle dissent and seek out the source of the leak about the bond tells us it easily could be something that should disqualify her. The emergency bond, secured under duress, may or may not disprove this.

Once we look at the picture more objectively, we have a much clearer idea of who is to blame for this unprecedented fiasco.

Small-Toney is the focal point, but the blame lies with Mayor Otis Johnson and the majority of City Council who've made it clear they'll do whatever it takes to give her the job, regardless of public outcry, regardless of whatever skeletons might or might not be in her closet, and possibly regardless of the City charter.

By disposing of reasonable methods of hiring a city manager and essentially relying on political brute force, they are, in effect, bullying their constituents. The old dodge of "that's why we have elections" rings particularly hollow in this case, because by the next election it will be too late to make sure Savannah has the city manager we need and deserve.

The low point came last week when, in a move that was brazen even by local standards, the mayor's office said that a City Council meeting Wednesday which was illegally closed to the media and public was actually legal because it was an extension of the public forum held the night before.

This childishly unbelievable excuse only reinforced the feeling that our leaders aren't only ignoring us, they're laughing at us.

However, their sense of humor clearly doesn't extend to themselves. The usual veil of feel-good "team" rhetoric was first cast aside when Mayor Johnson went ballistic, not over Small-Toney's lack of a bond but because someone leaked the information to the media.

Alderman Van Johnson then took the Nixonian step of calling for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to find the identity of the leaker so they could be punished.

Going back to our handy list format, their reaction tells us three things:

1) Mayor Johnson and Alderman Johnson are either unaware or don't care that there are potentially severe penalties for punishing whistleblowers who act in the public interest;

2) There is possibly something very damaging to be found out;

3) It's a municipal election year.

Savannah is old-fashioned, and it's still run by old-fashioned machine politics. Just because the new machine looks different from the old machine doesn't make life any easier for those who aren't part of the machine.

The simple truth is that, from a purely political standpoint, the absolute best thing to happen to Small-Toney and the self-labelled majority "team" on City Council in the November elections is for the local media, which is vastly white, and the local business community, also vastly white, to call for her to step aside.

Don't take my word for it. Mayor Johnson himself signaled the direction this was going to take when he responded to a reporter inquiring about Small-Toney's lack of a bond thusly:

"You know this is personal."

If you've lived in Savannah for a long time, as I have, it's impossible to see this as anything else but code for "It's racist to even ask these questions."

Whether he meant that or not is actually immaterial. Johnson is neither unintelligent nor naive, and couldn't possibly think it would be interpreted any other way.

Racial politics are nothing new here. But at no previous time in my years covering local politics have I seen the racial dynamic become so corrosive so quickly as with this city manager search.

The 1991 Rousakis vs. Weiner campaign had racial issues surrounding crime and punishment, but at heart was about the community wanting change at the top. The 2003 Johnson vs. Liakakis campaign had the potential to be extremely divisive racially, but because of the maturity of the two men it never got truly out of hand.

But we're in new territory here. The mayor's right: It really is personal.

The hard feelings over this will not go away with the hiring of a city manager, any city manager. It has dire implications for the future of the community, and all who live, go to school, pay taxes, and do business within it.

Good people can disagree on whether Small-Toney should be the next city manager of Savannah, and why or why not.

What is much more damaging is that Mayor Johnson and company have completely squandered an opportunity for one of those "teachable moments" he's so fond of.

A chance to unite the community, black and white, around a clearly qualified candidate of any race or gender was thrown away to feed the beast of machine politics.

The potential for Johnson to cement his mayoral legacy as a leader who believed in transparency and empowerment was trashed over the span of a few days by the gritty reality of power.

Otis Johnson will be off the city stage in a matter of months, but we'll all have to deal with the consequences of his poor judgment in this situation.

As will the next mayor of Savannah, whoever that might be.

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

Bio:
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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Connect Today 12.05.2016

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