Editor's Note: 'Mayor Pro Tem': What it means and doesn't

CONTRARY TO WHAT you might have heard, in and of itself the position of "Mayor Pro Tem" on Savannah City Council isn’t that big a deal.

All it means is that if the actual Mayor of Savannah is out of town, or sick, or otherwise unable to run the biweekly Council meetings or make a public appearance on behalf of the City, the Mayor Pro Tem gets to do that instead.

Basically you get to wield the gavel once or twice a year, in a City where by charter even the actual Mayor doesn’t have that much power, where in the last Mayoral election only a little over a third of registered voters cared enough to vote.

You wouldn’t know all this, however, by the way local politicians jockey and maneuver to get the “valuable” title of Mayor Pro Tem, which is determined by the City Council in a public vote.

(For fellow linguistics geeks: Pro Tem is short for “pro tempore,” Latin for “for the time being.”)

To be fair, the positive optics of running a City Council meeting are pretty self-evident. If I were a politician, I suppose I’d jump at the chance to run a meeting.

Savannah though, being Savannah, has its own peculiar mythology about the Mayor Pro Tem spot.

For years, encouraged no doubt by some of our illustrious leaders, the myth has evolved among many, many local residents that the “Mayor Pro Tem” position means that person is “next in line” to be Mayor.

(Never mind that there are these pesky things called “elections” which actually determine that.)

I’ve heard this said and written and posted numerous times, that the Mayor Pro Tem is the “next” Mayor of Savannah.

It’s wrong of course. But the misconception serves a purpose, and has been cynically encouraged by local politicians.

For example, former Mayor Edna Jackson was Mayor Pro Tem before she was elected Mayor.

She often made it quite clear that her preferred title was “Mayor Pro Tem” rather than her actual title at the time, Alderwoman at Large, bestowed on her by constituents rather than fellow politicians.

Lest you think I’m picking on the former Mayor, she hasn’t been the only one.

So now we get to the meat of the story:

During Mayor Edna Jackson’s four years in office, the Mayor Pro Tem position has been occupied, and for the most part ably so, by First District Alderman Van Johnson.

While Alderman Johnson denies mayoral aspirations — and I’m certainly not calling him a liar — nonetheless it has been widely held that he would be “next in line” after Mayor Jackson’s second term in office, now rendered a moot point with her unexpected defeat by Eddie DeLoach.

I’m not saying Van Johnson encouraged the idea that he was “next in line,” but I am suggesting that perhaps he didn’t do very much to discourage it either.

In any case, the fact remains that the Mayor Pro Tem still seems to be a position that local politicians feel is worth competing for.

Which brings us to this past Thursday’s City Council meeting, the second working Council meeting under the DeLoach administration and the one in which the new Mayor Pro Tem is elected by fellow City Council members.

Long story short, Van Johnson failed to garner a majority of his peers to support his reelection as Mayor Pro Tem.

Alderwoman at Large Carol Bell won instead, and is your new Mayor Pro Tem.

And for all I know, maybe Alderwoman Bell, too, thinks she’s “next in line” to be Mayor.

We shall see.

While the title itself isn’t that important, what was really interesting about the vote is what it showed us about the future of City Council politics.

When Mayor DeLoach opened the floor to nominations, Alderman Tony Thomas made a quick and clear motion to nominate Van Johnson for another term as Mayor Pro Tem.

Before the vote, Johnson was allowed to make a speech on his own behalf asking for the job again, which though clearly heartfelt didn’t get him the five votes he needed.

Then came the nomination of Carol Bell, who garnered five votes to win.

Who were the five votes? Her own vote plus all the newly elected Council members, including Mayor DeLoach himself.

Tony Thomas then nominated Johnson for Chair of Council, but a clearly offended Johnson quickly declined the nomination.

Instead, newbie Julian Miller got that position, with another newbie, Brian Foster, voted Vice Chair.

Of most concern, it seems that the “Old Guard” of holdovers from the Edna Jackson days — Van Johnson, Tony Thomas, John Hall, and Estella Shabazz — made it clear from their words and attitude that they are moving forward essentially as if Jackson were still Mayor.

To my eyes, there seemed to be no small amount of hard feelings still in the air— about the election, about Mayor Pro Tem votes, about City Manager Stephanie Cutter’s retirement, about a lot of stuff.

In Western democracies there is a long-established, well-respected idea of “the Loyal Opposition.”

I’m just not sure this particular opposition is all that loyal. The amount of spite and denial should concern everyone.

In the middle of it all, now an all-important swing vote between the two groups, is....

None other than Mayor Pro Tem Carol Bell, the only holdover from the Jackson administration who seems to be willing to play ball with the DeLoach administration.

Simply put, Alderwoman Bell now holds the balance of power in Savannah politics.

So... maybe being Mayor Pro Tem isn’t that small a deal after all!


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