Editor's Note: Sponging off Jay Self

I'M ON PRETTY GOOD TERMS with Jay Self and with Spongebob Squarepants. I can confidently say there's room enough in this town for both of them.

That, however, isn't the sentiment of the City of Savannah, which just fired Self, our longtime film services director.

As is typical with City personnel matters these days, we heard one story, then a contradicting story, then the initial story was confirmed (see Lovett, Willie C.)

Stories made the rounds about disgruntled downtown business owners upset over the disruption and alleged low compensation during the Spongebob movie shoot, in which Broughton Street facades were painted fancifully to mimic Bikini Bottom (please don't tell me I have to tell you what Bikini Bottom is).

There was a weak attempt to say Self's suspension had nothing to do with that. Then another reversal, in the form of an official memo to Self saying exactly that.

But the pre-firing memo itself could just as easily be a cover story for some personal slight against some "important person." Wouldn't be the first time.

Something we know with near 100 percent certainty at this point is that Self's attorney is likely drooling at the prospect of a potential wrongful termination lawsuit due to the City's ham-fisted handling of his client's firing.

Full disclosure: I'm not at all impartial about Jay Self. I worked alongside Jay when I was on the Oglethorpe Charter School Board of Governors, while he was chairman.

If you know much about charter schools you know that unlike most boards — which are generally little more than rubber stamps — the governing board of a charter school is actually a governing board.

Because charter schools are largely autonomous from the regular school board, their governing boards make real policy, and drive and direct the activities of the principal and staff. Though a volunteer position, it's a hard job with a lot of responsibility. Chairman that much more so.

As chairman of the Oglethorpe board, Self consistently displayed what I can only describe as an almost frighteningly high level of intelligence and a precise, practical grasp of all the facts and numbers at hand. He combined that with the rare gift of being able to articulate exactly what he meant at any given time.

I suspect many people were deeply threatened by that imposing skill set.

And there's no doubt in my mind that he brought the exact same skill set to his 18 years as film services director.

Can Self occasionally come across as a bit aloof? Glib? Yes and yes.

I've had the same things said about me. Maybe you too. They're not crimes, and they're certainly not grounds for termination.

The truth is that anyone in Self's former position, in a small town as politically prickly and personality-driven as Savannah, will eventually find themselves in a lose-lose situation. Between a sponge and a hard place, as it were.

Before lifting a finger, a film services director in a parochial, conservative city like ours already comes into the job with three strikes against them:

1) You have to be able to keep secrets. And I mean really keep secrets, which is almost impossible here and certainly frowned upon given the beloved local pastime of rampant gossiping.

2) Politicians' egos: One of the, um, charming things about Savannah is that pretty much every mayor, alderman and county commissioner thinks they're the president of the United States. Imagine the self-regard of a president multiplied by 18. That's what a film services director here has to deal with on a regular basis, not to mention dealing with movie producers, directors, actors, crew, and local businesses.

3) You have to dress and behave like the film crews you interact with. Not a small thing. Movie people are very informal. This means T-shirts and jeans much more often than blue blazers and pinstripes. This means a certain amount of resentment from old-school politicians and the more conservative Chamber of Commerce types who are important constituencies for a film office. The culture clash can't be ignored.

That's three strikes-you're-out before you even come up to bat. Combine that with whatever went down during the Spongebob shoot and the unbelievably disrespectful treatment of Self by former City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney — ripples of which are still reverberating — and you have the recipe for what happened now:

A city dumped its veteran film services director in the middle of a high-profile major studio movie shoot, during a banner time for local film production.

What could possibly go wrong?

The bottom line here isn't about Self's future. He's more than bright and capable enough to take care of himself. And the bottom line isn't about whether or not Broughton Street merchants will soldier on.

The bottom line is that a very small market like Savannah was extremely lucky to have a person of Self's abilities in what amounts to an almost impossible job.

Savannah has the only film office in the state outside Atlanta. Continuing to have that local office is by no means a given. There is no guarantee — none, zero — that it will continue now that Self is out.

For whatever faults Self has — and he has his share, like anyone else — stop for a moment and imagine his potential successor.

Picture the chain of fortunate events which would have to happen to get someone as qualified and motivated as Self to work here under these conditions, for a public servant's salary.

Now put a number on those chances. I'd say about the same as meeting a talking sponge with big blue eyes.


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