LATER this week, the three finalists for the job of Savannah City Manager are set to visit the place they want to run, and actively interview for the job.
(One of the finalists, Odie Donald, actually worked in Savannah from 2013-2015. He is currently also a finalist for the Augusta, Ga., City Manager job.)
They will meet with Mayor Johnson and City Council members, and will tour various City facilities — many of which are far-flung and now in rented spaces, after former City Manager Rob Hernandez divested the City of many of its own offices.
One of the tropes of the municipal candidate search industry, I’m told, is that sometimes the finalists don’t “get off the plane” — in other words, sometimes candidates just bow out at the last minute, for whatever reason.
I haven’t heard anyone seriously predict this will happen, but if there is reluctance on the part of any of the candidates, it would be easy to see why.
The simple truth is that the job interview for City Manager works both ways — as any real job interview should.
City Council, who hires and fires City Managers, is interviewing candidates.
But City Council, and by extension the City of Savannah, is also being interviewed by the candidates.
City Manager jobs are competitive, highly paid, and offer many perks and benefits unavailable to the vast majority of working people.
But, a really good candidate who is willing to move will find a good job, somewhere. They can and do cross cities off their list of prospective employers.
They might do it because of a city’s particular financial challenges.
They might do it because of a city’s reputation for throwing City Managers under the bus.
They might do it because they see how poorly others are treated by elected officials in the city that is interviewing them.
In Savannah’s case, all three of those could be said to apply.
So in a very real sense, there is at least as much pressure on Savannah to perform this week, as on any candidate for the City Manager job.
Everyone has a set of pet issues they want the next City Manager to focus on. Whether it’s transportation, zoning, more regulation, less regulation, more funding for police, defunding the police... there’s no shortage of opinions and points of view.
The single most pressing issue directly relevant to the City Manager job, however, is Savannah’s desperate need for stability in the position.
I’ve heard from more than one source that many of Savannah’s current troubles can be traced to the brief but disastrous tenure of former City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney from 2010 to 2012.
These troubles relate not only to Small-Toney’s decisions in her 18 months as City Manager — that often felt more like 18 years — but in the ensuing merry-go-round of successors in the job.
One source goes so far as to refer to this syndrome as a “City Manager Death Spiral,” which is apparently a fairly common thing that people talk about in that field.
Small-Toney’s purge of existing department heads and in some cases nearly entire departments, while in a few cases overdue, also had the result of eliminating the vast bulk of institutional knowledge in Savannah leadership positions.
Generations of hard-won expertise and experience was thrown out nearly overnight. What followed was a constant reshuffle of City leadership and organization charts that we live with to this day.
Just in the purchasing department alone, there was near-complete turnover, resulting in months of the City literally not paying its bills. That’s just one example; a book could be written about that tumultuous year and a half.
After Small-Toney’s termination came nearly a decade of awkward fits: Stephanie Cutter’s three-year placeholder tenure; Rob Hernandez’s controversial two and a half-year tenure; and Pat Monahan’s placeholder tenure from spring 2019 to present. (Monahan, former Chatham County Assistant Manager, has made it clear he doesn’t want the City job permanently.)
But the inflection point was with Small-Toney. Prior to that Savannah was known for its remarkable longevity in City Managers. Michael Brown served 15 years; his predecessor Don Mendonsa served for 28 years.
Many will counter that those days will never come again. It’s often pointed out that in the modern environment it’s almost impossible for any City Manager, in any city, to last more than five or so years, if that.
That’s probably not wrong. But Savannah is not going to get back on track if we’re not willing to at least try to get someone who will survive more than one mayor.
The City Manager job, by charter and by law, is simply too important to trust to a rotating cast of hired guns.