SAVANNAH’S NEW City Manager pick, Roberto "Rob" Hernandez, couldn’t be coming on board at a more significant time.
Crime continues spiking and expanding all over the tourist zone, the horrifying stabbing/mutilation of Carol Bontekoe this weekend outside her apartment near Forsyth Park being just the latest example.
A series of baffling budget decisions are inexplicably being allowed to slouch forward under lame-duck City Manager Stephanie Cutter—head-scratching projects written about at length in this space over the past few months.
The hire of Hernandez would seem to be the answer to our prayers: a professional with a lengthy resume, highly experienced in growing urban areas with very diverse populations, without a hint of scandal to his name so far as anyone can tell, with nothing but glowing reviews from those who’ve worked with him.
(Indeed, like any good public policy professional these days, Hernandez has virtually no Google footprint. Which in his line of work is ideal, though frustrating for those of us seeking more information.)
Simply put, it would be nearly impossible in realistic terms for Savannah to find a more experienced or suitable candidate than Rob Hernandez.
But in my mind Hernandez’s most significant attribute isn’t necessarily what he’s done, but where he’s done it.
Broward County, Fla., has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties for years, its main city of course being Fort Lauderdale. Hernandez held two important positions in Broward, as Assistant City Manager of Coral Springs and his current gig as Deputy County Administrator with Broward County government.
While no one would ever confuse historic, sleepy Savannah with bustling, rapidly urbanizing Broward, that area is more demographically diverse than Savannah and becoming more so all the time.
(Maybe one day we will have a realization in Savannah about what diversity means beyond the typical local black/white binary model, i.e. Latino, Asian, and other immigrant populations consciously added into the discussion. Oh well, another column some other day.)
Before that, Hernandez spent some time as Deputy County Manager in Fulton County, Ga., the state’s most populous county—over a million people—and the heart of metro Atlanta.
Another very diverse area, Fulton County has slightly different issues than Broward: Urban blight, enormous traffic congestion, brownfields, to name a few.
Most pertinently to Savannah, Fulton County is experiencing a growing tension between haves and have-nots, as parts of that county experience a renaissance due to an influx of young professionals, and other parts experience continuing economic decline, crime, and homelessness.
A perfect mirror to Savannah’s own increasing class/race, downtown vs. everywhere-else divide.
Unlike our local alderpersons and county commissioners, Fulton County commissioners each have their own staff, making, in the words of one local expert, “a very challenging environment for any bureaucrat to operate in.”
Simply put, if you can make it in Fulton County, you can make it anywhere.
I strongly suspect that whatever wacky situation Hernandez might find himself in here—and we all know how wacky Savannah can get—he will have seen stuff at least as wacky up in Atlanta.
One hopes, in a perfect world scenario, that Hernandez will view our City budget, smaller than ones he’s dealt with before, as that much more manageable.
Assuming Hernandez can come to terms with the City on his new contract —by no means a given, and keep in mind Cutter has essentially an open-ended deal to stay on at full salary as long as her replacement isn’t hired—he will probably start in September.
If I had one public request to make of Mr. Hernandez, it would be this:
Let’s declare a moratorium on all pending major decisions and initiatives, say through the end of the year.
Let’s not hamstring this great new hire by saddling him from Day One with a bunch of half-baked, lame-duck ideas.
Let's hear what he thinks about some of these ideas already in motion. Aren't you curious?
I’m talking about the plan to test the elimination of parking on Bay Street.
I'm talking about the plan to expand parking hours and rates downtown.
I’m talking about the Fairgrounds purchase.
I’m talking about proposed radical changes to the traffic calming process.
I’m talking about working more sympathetically with Chief Lumpkin on finally adequately funding this police department instead of continuing to nickel and dime.
And yes, I’m talking about the Westside Arena itself.
Many of these issues—the Arena chief among them—have already been extensively litigated both in City Council and in the court of local public opinion.
(The Fairgrounds purchase might even be vulnerable on legal grounds given the bizarre way the “emergency” vote unfolded.)
But all these ideas and others could use a fresh look from a fresh set of eyes that can probably shine a lot of new wisdom on the subject.
I’m not suggesting that Hernandez overturn the will of Council nor of the people.
Just that he be allowed to vet, on his own terms, the projects the success or failure of which he himself will eventually be judged by.
And who knows? Maybe he will think all or most of the current plans are just fine.
The Savannah City Manager is by far the city’s most powerful position, in practice and by official charter.
Unlike most cities, in Savannah the Mayor is just one vote out of nine, though one with a larger bully pulpit.
All roads of power in Savannah lead to and from the City Manager’s office. And we are hiring a person who seems to be the best possible candidate.
Looks like we hit the jackpot with Hernandez. Let’s not screw this up.