THE VERY FIRST working City Council meeting of 2016 and the incoming administration will be a hard one to top.
At the climax of what was already a focused, productive meeting – including the revocation of Club Rain’s liquor license in a unanimous vote – City Manager Stephanie Cutter announced her retirement.
Addressing new Mayor Eddie DeLoach and the rest of City Council directly, Cutter said she has “agreed to remain as City Manager as you conduct a nationwide search for a new City Manager. I will remain in the Office of City Manager until the new Manager’s term begins.”
“I have also agreed to remain as an adviser to the new City Manager for one year. I trust that you will remain diligent in your commitment to provide me your full support in my role as City Manager pursuant to the City Charter, and make the same commitment to the new City Manager,” she said.
The very generous deal for Cutter – the search for a new City Manager will likely take at least a year, followed by another year for her as adviser at full salary, followed by her full retirement pension – meant a contentious and likely racially polarized vote to terminate her will be avoided.
Cutter’s retirement wasn’t really a surprise. It had been rumored all week, helped along by incendiary Facebook posts by Alderman Tony Thomas and former Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague purporting to share inside information.
But that didn’t reduce the sense of near-shock that an election could have such immediate practical consequences.
Mayor DeLoach, who never had the chance to formally work with Cutter in any capacity but whose campaign promised systemic change, said to her, “I don’t think there was ever a question about your integrity. I want to thank you for what you’ve stood for and how you’ve raised the bar for the City Manager’s position.”
Alderman Van Johnson – who appeared to take on almost a mentor role in helping DeLoach move his first meeting along – made the most pointed and pragmatic remarks to Cutter:
“This breaks my heart,” Johnson said, “But on the other hand there are political realities that cannot be ignored.”
Cutter was named Interim City Manager in 2012 after the termination of controversial former City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney. After Cutter herself said publicly that she didn’t want the job permanently – City Council indeed named her as permanent City Manager.
While all observers agree Cutter was significantly more effective and less abrasive than Small-Toney, the election brought to the fore a sense that she was perhaps in over her head on financial issues.
The botched City/County police merger, for which Cutter presumably would have been a lead City negotiator, also seems to have been a game-changer.
SPEAKING OF POLICE, ordinarily an appearance by SCMPD Chief Joseph Lumpkin before City Council would be the star turn of the meeting.
It was only Cutter’s retirement announcement that overshadowed Lumpkin’s forceful testimony at the show-cause hearing of the problematic Club Rain on Bay Street across the street from City Hall itself, labeled a “public safety threat” by police.
“I recommend their license be revoked,” Lumpkin stated to Council flatly while being questioned by the City’s attorney and Club Rain’s attorney.
Lumpkin’s statement supporting the termination of Club Rain’s liquor license followed an extensive cross-examination of an SCMPD officer who testified that there have been 269 calls for police service pertaining to Club Rain over a five year period, an average of roughly one per week.
Two gun discharges inside the club within a year appear to have been the last straw. One of the gun discharges preceded a more extensive gun battle a short walk away inside the Whitaker Street parking garage underneath Ellis Square, a heavily visited tourist landmark.
Alderman Tony Thomas made a point of saying that two years ago he asked for a show-cause hearing for this particular club.
“I guess the first discharge of a firearm inside of a club would have said that club is a threat to public safety, right?” he said sarcastically. “This is such an extreme case. I’m concerned it’s taken us this long to have a discussion about it.”
Alderwoman Carol Bell, also sardonically but a bit more subtle, said, “Maybe it might be of interest to look at the way show-cause hearings are prompted?”
DeLoach, while not disagreeing, said this meeting should focus on the particular club and liquor license in question and “we can look at the ordinance at a later time.”
A PROPOSED CONDO development on a lot off MLK Boulevard in the Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood —which has been vacant for the last 17 years —prompted an unexpected pushback.
The area’s premier developer attorney, Harold Yellin, was hired to help push the church-affiliated development through the bureaucracy.
“There has been no true development in this neighborhood for years,” Yellin told Council. “It’s an empty lot.”
But City Manager Stephanie Cutter claimed, without elaboration, that “I have not had the opportunity to discuss this and understand the ramifications.”
Yellin immediately answered Cutter:
“We went through four separate changes” of this development plan, Yellin told Cutter. “It’s now down to single-family residential — exactly what you asked us for.”
In the end, Council voted to table the vote but to consider this meeting one of the required public meetings on the subject.
Mayor DeLoach told the developer, “Thank you for investing in our community, we need more of that.”
IN OTHER NEWS, a liquor license was granted to Wes Daniels' new post-Hang Fire venture, the "El Rocko Lounge," slated for the old Flip Flops location on Whitaker.
Let’s hope the same issue that forced Wes to close Hang Fire — a latecoming condo owner unhappy with the noise level in Savannah’s entertainment district —doesn’t hound him at the new location.