Tybee City Manager job will be filled by one of these three finalists

Employment applications, resumes of the three finalists obtained by Connect Savannah on Thursday

The three finalists for Tybee's City Manager job are Michelle Owens, Bret Bell and Drew Willison. Employment applications for each of the candidates were obtained by Connect Savannah through requests submitted under the Georgia Open Records Act to the City of Tybee.

click to enlarge Tybee City Manager job will be filled by one of these three finalists
Michelle Owens, Tybee Interim City Manager

Owens is the current Interim City Manager for the City of Tybee. Bell is the longtime city administrator of Savannah. He was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the city for five years before shifting in 2024 to his current role of Chief Information and Public Affairs Officer. Willison is the Senior Vice President for Corporate and External Affairs at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Washington D.C.

click to enlarge Tybee City Manager job will be filled by one of these three finalists
Bret Bell

Connect Savannah’s previous reporting on the city manager search included comments from Mayor Brian West about plans to keep the names of the candidates private, so as to avoid any problems that the candidates might have with their current employers.

click to enlarge Tybee City Manager job will be filled by one of these three finalists
Drew Willison
“We decided we're not going to let anyone know who our top choices are, only because we don't want to jeopardize the current employer any of them have,” West told Connect Savannah on June 20.

"We're not sure if we will have to make the offer in a public forum, or it may be that we have to announce we're making an offer to that person in public before making an actual offer. It’s just something we’re waiting to find out from legal.”

When reached by text on Thursday afternoon (prior to the applications being obtained by Connect Savannah), Tybee City Attorney Edward “Bubba” Hughes responded to questions about a Georgia code requiring names of finalists be revealed to the public before formal offers are made.

“Not intending to be rude,” he texted. “Tybee is aware of the applicable law and will comply. Thanks.”

Sparked by West’s comments to Connect Savannah just a few days prior, Joseph Turner, President and founder of the newly formed American Association of Municipal Executives (AAME), argued that Tybee could be violating state law if it did not release the names prior to making an offer of employment for City Manager.

click to enlarge Tybee City Manager job will be filled by one of these three finalists
“Tybee Island’s decision not to release the names of its three city manager finalists appears to violate Georgia state law and we question the advice and counsel given to them by their recruitment firm, Baker Tilly,” said Turner on June 25 through an AAME press release, which also cited Georgia state code.

“Under Article 4 subsection (a)(11) of GA Code 50-18-72, the law states that municipal governments must disclose the names and information of the finalists and that a 14-day public notice period must elapse before a final vote can be taken.”

Joseph Turner's press release on Tybee's City Manager search through Baker Tilly

"It also reads that ‘the agency shall not be allowed to avoid the provisions of this paragraph by the employment of a private person or agency to assist with the search or application process.’ Baker Tilly has a history of engaging in questionable conduct around open records laws and for the poor treatment of city manager candidates,” Turner, who also hosts the City Manager Unfiltered Podcast, alleged.

“One of our objectives is to educate elected officials and advocate on behalf of public sector executives. Upon reading the state code it appears that naming a sole city manager finalist this week would violate the law.”

click to enlarge Tybee City Manager job will be filled by one of these three finalists
Tybee Mayor Brian West

An "agency" is defined in Georgia code as "every county, municipal corporation, school district, or other political subdivision of this state.”

West has previously stated his approval of Owens’ performance in her interim role. Tybee’s six-person city council decided (by vote) on Feb. 8 to employ Baker Tilly to conduct a national search for the open position, rather than using Human Resources Director Jamie Spear to conduct a more local search.

It cost the City of Tybee more than $26K to hire Baker Tilly in February
The Feb. 13, 2024 contract between Spear and Baker Tilly’s Executive Search Director Anne West was attached to a Tybee City Council meeting agenda on Feb. 22, 2024. It showed the cost for hiring Baker Tilly to be $26,950. Two voicemail messages left for West on Wednesday and Thursday were unreturned at the time of publishing.

During the Feb. 8 city council meeting,
councilman Michael “Spec” Hosti voted no to both options; he preferred the city hire Owens outright, in order to avoid spending money on a national search. But the only motions made at the council meeting on Feb. 8 were options involving a search; either Spear or Baker Tilly who would conduct it.
Hosti posted to his personal Facebook account on the evening of June 24 about the matter. The post was written exactly as follows:

“Michelle Owens is competing for the City managers job here on tybee. Michelle has five years experience working for the City of Tybee. She served as assistant City Manager for two years. I have been working with Michelle since 2019. She has also been Iterum City Manager for fourteen months. I appreciate Michelle's professionalism and her ability to work with her department heads as well as the entire staff. She is respected by the staff and I really know that they appreciate working with her. Bringing in some stranger at this point is insane. I don't want to acclimate another city manager to Tybee when we already have a competent person in charge."

"Your City councilmembers have wasted more than $40,000 doing a search for a new city manager. Michelle Owens is my choice and I will not waiver. Please contact you city council members and encourage them to support Michelle. She has put in the time and has more experience than anyone. We don't need to reinvent the wheel.”

West told Connect Savannah on June 20 that the decision to conduct a national search was not due to the council's desire for someone other than Owens. It was a matter of good due diligence, he argued.

“I think Michelle is doing a fantastic job. I wish we didn't have to go through this process because she really is doing a great job. But it is our responsibility to make sure that we have the best person for the job, no matter what that means. I feel like we're required to do a search and make sure we have the best person available. She is doing a great job and she's meeting our needs. I hope she is the best person available, but we have to be sure.”

This story is developing and will be updated.


Travis Jaudon

Travis Jaudon is a reporter for Connect Savannah. He is a Savannah native and has been writing in Savannah since 2016. Reach him with feedback or story tips at 912-721-4358
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