IN ADDITION to city-wide election hot buttons of crime, poverty and government waste, Savannah’s District 1 hosts a tangle of high-profile issues, including the proposed Westside arena /canal district and mismanaged SPLOST funding.
Bernetta Lanier is the only challenger to the district’s incumbent alderman, Mayor Pro Tem Van Johnson, who is running for his fourth term. She says economic disparity is the district’s most important issue.
A fourth generation Savannahian who grew up in and lives in District 1’s Hudson Hill community, Lanier is well-known among her neighbors as an organizer and advocate. She has a Masters’ degree in Public Administration from Savannah State, traveled the country as a business marketing consultant and has worked as a longshoreman at the Port of Savannah since 2007.
What persuaded you to throw your hat in the ring this election?
I grew up in a union household, in an environment where people were involved. For the past several years, I’ve been really busy, along with my neighbors, working to create a vision that betters our community.
We’ve worked with city government and city staff. We’ve had all of these charrettes and meetings. We know what we want our community to look like and how we want it to grow.
We went through a process and made a community development plan back in ’04, ’05 and ’06. We’ve voted for initiatives based on, hopefully, a return coming back to our communities. To this day in 2015, none of them have been implemented.
When we looked at all of the projects and where all of the SPLOST money had gone since ‘85 and assigned a pin on map to create a picture and see visually where the money was going, we saw that a majority of the investment—in the high 70 percent—was going away from the corridor where the residents live.
We were able to substantiate the feeling that something wasn’t right by finding that the numbers didn’t support our investment, which is our vote. The people who made those decisions, those other areas are the areas where the investment were priorities.
I want our residents to be the priority.
How do you think the proposed Westside arena and canal district will affect District 1 residents?
In theory, the concept is a good concept. But whatever goes there needs to be an economic engine. If designed and managed properly, we can get it to that. But it’s very important that the residents are involved so they can have input as to what their needs are. The set-up, the management, what the policies are—they need to involved in every stage.
At the end of the day, the people that live there are going to feel the brunt of the impact.
How does the poverty in the 1st district—in some neighborhoods 60 percent—affect crime?
Disparity equals crime. We don’t want this. We have an opportunity to put our children on the right track if we have appropriate programs and resources. Our communities are starved for that. And they need to be resident-driven.
My son, William George Anderson—we called him Bill—was murdered three years ago, sitting outside the community center trying to get reception for his cell phone. He was 24.
I was preparing him for this work, the work of empowering people. Now I’m going to have to take on the role and act in the best interest of our community. I want to take my pain and turn it into power.
What are the other challenges in your district?
We have a lot of infrastructure disparity in the district. We have crumbling streets and roads. We do not have proper drainage and we have bridges that haven’t been repaired in decades. Because of that disinvestment, we have high and extreme poverty rampant in the district.
We also have recreation disparity. Look at our two best facilities in the 1st district, Tompkins Center and Grant Center. I learned to swim at Tompkins Center and it still looks the same! Grant Center is built on a residential lot with a half-regulation basketball court. We have hundreds of kids hungry for programs and opportunities.
There is also zoning to address. We have residents on the other side of the airport, in an area called The Highlands, where the zoning is antiquated, applied during the time of segregation and lends itself to industrial intrusion and environmental injustices.
The people in West Chatham purchased and invested in some properties after seeing the plan of how the surrounded land was going to be used. But the city has a habit of allowing variances to plans and put those people’s property in jeopardy.
Do you support a county/city merger?
No, I do not. I do not think that would be positioning the people I want to serve to better serve them. It would put them at a disadvantage.
What would you do differently that the incumbent, Van Johnson?
He’s clearly an intelligent man, a personable one, but he has a 12-year record that speaks for itself. He has been at the table for two SPLOST votes and has had the opportunity to direct the funds differently.
He has a terrible attendance record and has to recuse himself on many votes, even when it is dealing with law enforcement, because he works for the County and his positions present a conflict of interest.
And because he works for the County during business hours, he has to come late to a lot of pre-meetings or miss them, which places the residents of the 1st district at a disadvantage.
At that point, the people of the 1st District have had no representation.
I tell folks it’s like we’re on a football team. We’re really on the ground and we’ve run the ball all the way down to the one yard line. Our representative is our quarterback, and we just need him to cross that one yard for the touchdown.
We give him the ball, and not only does the ball not make it in, he’s turned around and run to the other end and scored for the other team! It’s unacceptable.
I don’t have the financial backing that he does, but there are so many young voters who haven’t previously been active who are so fed up. When you get people that are challenging incumbents at this rate, it shows we aren’t satisfied with the service we’ve been getting.
So what we’re doing is trying to package that information and wake people up. We have a video on our Facebook page called “Truth Be Told” that puts all of the facts in perspective.
I don’t believe that Savannah can prosper at the rate that it has without the 1st district prospering as well. We can’t have that big of a divide.
My mantra would be put the money where the problem lies, where the need is. Let’s fortify that.