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Time to scale back city manager's power? 

Last week, several members of the Facebook group dedicated to discussing the City's anti-jaywalking campaign engaged Alderman Van Johnson in a lengthy, substantive conversation about the recent ticketing spree.

Their dialogue brought to light the possibility that, according to Johnson, the crackdown was decided upon by the city manager and the police chief without any prior knowledge of the mayor or city council.

While the unfortunate string of pedestrian deaths over the past several months (8 deaths in 10 months) and the subsequent flurry of $140+ tickets have raised a lot of issues in the community, one question that looms on the edge of this issue is whether Savannah's city government is ready for some change; and whether the city has outgrown its current Council-Manager system of government.

The Council-Manager system was first enacted in Savannah in 1954, upon the recommendation of several consulting firms brought in to help the city avoid financial ruin at the hands of corrupt city officials who had raided the coffers, run roughshod over the budget, and brought Savannah to the verge of bankruptcy.

The position of city manager was intended to be a financial overseer for the city, ensuring that public officials kept a tight, balanced budget. To best manage the corruption that had become commonplace among the city's public officials, the new city manager was given executive and administrative control over the heads of all the city's departments and bureaus, including the chief of police.

In fact, according to city law, there's only one day when the police chief answers directly to the mayor, and that is on an election day.

While such measures may have been necessary 55 years ago, the swift, knee-jerk reaction to the jaywalking problem demonstrates why it might be time to consider a change back to the way things used to be - not with corrupt public officials spending freely, but with elected officials answering directly to their constituents - with a public that knows the people they elected are the ones calling the shots.

After hundreds of tickets were issued in a matter of days, and a lasting scar left on the city's reputation among visitors caught in the crackdown, the citizens of Savannah have no real recourse against these draconian enforcement tactics because they were enacted by the city manager - the person who holds the most power in the city but who is not elected by the people whose lives and businesses his actions affect.

Maybe it's time to scale back some of the city manager's duties, and return the position to its intended objective: as a balance to unchecked spending by public officials.

Or maybe it's time to let our elected officials do the jobs that many believe they were elected to do. Otherwise, we might as well redirect the millions of dollars spent on holding elections every few years, give everyone the day off and throw a big party.

In 1953, the city manager position was created after a hard-fought citizens' referendum to make local government work for the people again, an effort which netted Savannah its first All-America City Award from the National Civic League.
With a hint of irony, it seems that these days the move to the Council-Manager system, which once won Savannah an award for advancing democracy, is now hindering representative government.

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