THE COURTS. The police department. The fire department. The hospitals. The schools. The library. The jail.
When you think of what makes a society a society, those are the institutions you usually think of first.
And those core institutions in Savannah and Chatham County are also the most plagued with corruption and/or deeply entrenched issues.
It hardly seems a coincidence.
To be fair, some of them are on the mend. Others not so much. Either way, it is a dire indicator. And it’s not funny or charming anymore, if it ever really was.
It’s one thing for a rogue City Council member to draw attention to himself with outrageous behavior, as we’ve seen recently. Sorting that out is what elections are for.
It’s quite another for a basic, necessary institution to be rotten to the core. For several of them to be rotten to the core.
To cite a recent example, our Recorder’s Court is virtually non-functioning due to internecine warfare among judges and staff.
An entire local court just doesn’t work.
Chief Judge Tammy Stokes was stripped of administrative duties by another court, with two deputies also stripped of power. Stokes was then reinstated by yet another court. Gee, I wonder how everyone will get along now?
The Recorder’s Court is so non-functioning in fact that the City of Savannah wants to start its own municipal version of the same court, at least in part due to that dysfunction.
So the chaos at Recorder’s Court will likely result in significant increased cost to taxpayers, not to mention the measurable impact on litigated cases, including people’s due process rights being violated.
Our recent problems with police corruption are well documented, and a former Metro police chief is now in federal prison because of them.
While the worst seems to be over, remember that the staining legacy of that corruption is in a sense one reason why the murder rate remains so out of control here.
When you picture cops in your mind, you often think of firefighters in tandem. And the sudden resignation last week of well-respected, award-winning longtime Fire Marshal Craig Landolt—actually not so sudden if you know some of the backstory—is a huge blow.
More importantly, it is symptomatic of deep, longstanding issues within Savannah Fire and Emergency Services which cannot be addressed by simply hiring a warm body to take Landolt’s place.
The internal strife at Savannah Fire will have an impact not only on basic safety but on the ability of businesses to open here and to employ people in a city with a 26 percent poverty rate.
Memorial University Medical Center, the region’s premier trauma hospital, is facing all kinds of severe financial problems, some caused by strife between the board and the county, and some caused by the inevitable financial stresses of being the area’s indigent care facility.
But either way, our major hospital is facing major trouble. The trickle-down effects could be disastrous, in very real human terms.
The Chatham County Detention Center, i.e. the jail, is still reeling from a series of incidents involving mistreatment of inmates which resulted in the termination of a host of deputies.
To be fair, there’s a new sheriff in town, as the saying goes, and these problems are being addressed in a much more forthright manner than with the previous sheriff. But as with the police department, these issues aren’t solved in a day, or a month, or a year.
As for Savannah-Chatham Public Schools, they are currently courting something close to catastrophe in their first attempt in many years at running the school bus system in-house.
From what I’ve heard from angry parents all over the district, the school system may have found the one way to run the school buses that’s even more outrageously incompetent than contracting the service to outside companies.
We are now several decades into the idea of busing schoolchildren all over Chatham County, and I doubt there’s been a single year which a reasonable person would describe as satisfactory.
Not even the local library system—perhaps our last nostalgic link to an innocent age gone by, and the place you least expect controversy or corruption—is immune.
When you think of libraries, you think of the delight of young minds devouring knowledge, the thrill of a well-told story, stern but helpful librarians guiding children to the greatest books ever written.
But not here, not now. The Live Oak Public Library is running on fumes after several key resignations over the last year and allegations of misuse of funds at worst, and extremely poor management at best.
I don’t want to sound too alarmist about all this. We’re still not near the level of dysfunction of say, DeKalb County, Ga., where literally dozens of government officials and high-level players have faced criminal convictions and serious prison time for blatant corruption over the past few years.
We are not near the level of corruption of say, Clayton County, Ga., where the entire public school system lost accreditation, the first in the country since 1969 to do so.
The difference is one of scale. As I’ve written before, Savannah is a smaller market than we often want to believe.
It’s a small town, and in small towns we often not only know people affected by failing institutions, we often know the people directly involved with that failure or even responsible for it, and say nothing.
We see them across the room at parties. Oh, that’s the guy who totally screwed up such-and-such. That’s the woman who’s running such-and-such into the ground.
Oh, hi guy. Hi, lady. (Shakes hands.)
We know it, but don’t say it openly. It’s not the Savannah way.
This is both our best attribute and our worst. We stay nice and we stay distant, even though in this little place we feel the effects of corruption and failure even more personally and more keenly.
It will stay this way, or get worse, until people finally decide they’ve had enough.