Thanking God for “sparing me to allow me to come back to try to finish this task or mission that I’m on,” Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson hosted a brief press conference last Friday to mark his return to his native city and his elected office.
Considering the severity of his recent heart attack and long hospital stay in Memphis, Tenn. -- “I sustained serious damage to the frontal part of my heart,” he said -- Johnson was surprisingly hale and hearty as he addressed reporters while relaxed at his City Hall desk.
After an estimated 6-8 week cardiac rehab ordered by his doctors, Johnson says he’ll be “concentrating on policy issues and working on the same agenda this council and I set out on two years ago. I’ll still use the bully pulpit on education, we’ll still work to provide affordable housing for those on minimum wage.”
The mayor was frank in saying he plans to run for re-election, explaining that he “wants the full eight years” to see his progressive agenda to fruition.
But he was also frank in recognizing he’ll have to do his job differently in the future.
“This is supposed to be a part-time job, and I’ve been putting in 40-60 hours a week. I’ve given up holidays and weekends. I’m not going to do that again,” he said.
Johnson says he’ll delegate most ceremonial, symbolic duties of his office -- like ribbon-cuttings, for example -- to other members of council.
“All that ceremonial stuff doesn’t help anyone’s life projection, and that’s not what I’m about,” he said.
Though quick to say that he himself is not angling for a pay raise, the mayor said the citizens will have to decide if they want a full-time mayor instead of a part-time one with a current salary of $42,000 a year.
“In my two years of service I’ve tried to be everywhere and meet with any group and to be a high-profile mayor. I’ve been blessed because I’m retired. But if I was working there’s no way in the world I could have done that,” he said.
“If the citizens like that, then maybe they’ll consider supporting that level” of pay for the mayor’s office, he said.
“But I’m not asking to do anything before my time is up,” he quickly added.
Johnson said his longtime attitude of having a plan, a team and an agenda in place so that the city is not completely dependent on the mayor alone paid off during his absence.
“No one is indispensable. We have a system and good people around that system, and goals to set. People are amazed how unified this council is on the issues,” he said, reserving particular praise for the job Mayor Pro Tem Edna Jackson, Alderwoman at Large, performed in his extended absence.
Mayor Johnson described at some length the circumstances around his heart attack, his hospital stay and his program for rehabilitation.
He said the first sign of trouble was “pressure in my chest. I thought at first is was a case of indigestion.”
As the pressure increased, the mayor -- by himself in a Memphis hotel room -- called for help.
“I didn’t want to be found dead in that room,” he said.
In recalling how his situation worsened with paramedics in attendance, the mayor joked that he “didn’t see a light, didn’t hear voices, didn’t have any of those things happen that people say they have with near-death experiences.”
After help arrived, he began his long recovery in a Memphis intensive care unit, and a hospital stay that’s usually four or five days turned into nearly three weeks.
“I’ll now start cardiac rehabilitation. It’s going to be a long-term process. I’m going to follow doctor’s orders, and it’ll be 6-8 weeks at least before I can assume my regular duties. If the medicine doesn’t work, I’ll have to have open-heart surgery” to remove the dead tissue around his heart, he said.
Johnson had particular gratitude for Gulfstream, which provided a jet and flew the mayor back home.
“I want to thank Gulfstream for working with the city to get me back,” he said. “I was not strong enough to go through the Memphis airport and then the Atlanta airport and back here. That would have been too much strain on me at this point. Gulfstream turned a five hour trip into a one-hour trip.”
When asked how he felt when he learned that a rumor quickly circulated around Savannah that he was dead, Johnson replied:
“I thought it was rather funny. I thought to myself, I’m going to disappoint some people,’” he said with a laugh.
“Y’all aren’t through with me yet.”
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