The biggest local news story of 2013 was without a doubt the depressing, devastating meltdown of the top leadership of the Savannah/Chatham Metropolitan Police. This soap opera had just about everything: Sex, drugs, adultery, lawsuits, corruption in high places.
The tragic result is a police force still paralyzed to a certain extent by the upheaval, which is far from over.
Former Police Chief Willie Lovett, Savannah's first African American police chief and once hailed as a great example of promoting-from-within, resigned suddenly in September when it became clear that his role as a defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit was about to blow up big-time.
The lawsuit centered on an alleged affair Lovett had with detective Trina Mayes, who is married to another Savannah cop, LaPrentice Mayes.
Meanwhile, two captains, Dean Fagerstrom and Charles Hall, sued the City, saying Lovett allegedly characterized an open major's position they were interested in applying for as a "white man's spot." Yikes!
And those are just a few of the eight pending discrimination lawsuits against Savannah Police that are facing City of Savannah taxpayers.
But the most far-reaching development was the apparent corruption of the department's Internal Affairs division under Chief Lovett. Taxpayers funded a pricey independent study by a Virginia firm which focused on the activities of Counter Narcotics Team member Malik Khaalis and Savannah Police officer Willet Williams.
Both officers came under scrutiny from the FBI as well as Chatham County DA Meg Heap for the alarming and suspicious breakdown of drug investigations they were involved in.
While the report paints a gripping and grim picture of the cooperation between Khaalis, Williams, and the drug traffickers they seem to have protected, even more disturbing is the length to which Chief Lovett allegedly went in order to protect Khaalis and Williams in turn. In the report, Lovett repeatedly covers for them and either demotes or removes anyone attempting to blow the whistle on their activities, including the previously mentioned Capt. Fagerstrom.
Savannah has a new interim police chief, Julie Tolbert, who depending on who you talk to is either a breath of fresh air or someone already far too close to the situation the City is attempting to reform and to the people who need to be cleaned out.
City Manager Stephanie Cutter has vowed to "leave no stone unturned." But taxpayers are left wondering if that means real responsible action or just more expensive studies to tell us what we already know. — Jim Morekis
It's been two and half years since 38,000 dead fish were found floating belly up in the Ogeechee River, and justice has finally been served.
At the end of November, the environmental non-profit Ogeechee Riverkeeper (ORK) announced that they had reached a settlement with King America Finishing (KAF), a textile manufacturing plant that expels its wastewater right above where the dead fish bobbed in May 2011.
Though KAF did not expressly take responsibility for the fish kill, the settlement includes a $2.5 million contribution by KAF to ORK to monitor pollution levels in the Ogeechee River. The agreement also sets forth an unprecedented set of regulations required of KAF, contained in a revised wastewater permit issued by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.
"This settlement provides ORK with the means to not only closely monitor the river on an ongoing basis, but also creates a process for discussing changes to the permit in the event any problems come to light," says Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn.
Since the fish kill, KAF has spent half a million dollars on improving its wastewater treatment facilities and will invest another $2.5 million in upgrades. The consent order from the state also calls for third-party monitoring and a host of Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs). In exchange, the Riverkeeper will drop its Clean Water Act lawsuit against KAF and stop fighting against the terms of the EPD permit.
ORK leadership and legal counsel were closely involved in the authorship of the permit issued on Nov. 20. Some of the negotiations include a 30-35 percent decrease in the allowed limits of ammonia and a 20 percent decrease in the total amount of wastewater discharged into the river, down from 10 percent to 8 percent.
Also for the first time, there are caps on total waste solids and fecal coliform as well as limits on discharged sulfides and nitrogen. Changes in color and pH will be sounded by automatic alarm, and the presence of the fire retardant chemical tetrakis hydroxymethyl phosphonium chloride (THPC) will be specifically checked for twice a month instead of twice a year.
"The Ogeechee River will now be the most monitored, regulated, analyzed body of water in the state," vows ORK attorney Don Stack. — Jessica Leigh Lebos
A Streetcar named Arena
Opponents of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), emboldened by the 2012 crash and burn of the statewide TSPLOST referendum, thought mistakenly that this might be the first year voters wouldn't extend SPLOST since its inception in the Reagan administration.
But Savannahians continued to show their voracious appetite for sales taxes when in November they easily passed an extension of the one percent tax for another six years.
SPLOST's extension means the City's single big-ticket wishlist item, a new arena on the Westside to replace the aging Civic Center, will be a reality, to the tune of nearly $200 million. (The Johnny Mercer Theatre, however, will remain and be upgraded.)
Turns out that's not all for taxes. Right around the time of SPLOST's passage, plans were immediately unveiled — purely coincidentally, we're sure — for a Tax Allocation District on the Westside.
Turns out the idea isn't only a new arena on the Westside, but several new streetcar lines to accompany it, administered by Chatham Area Transit and paid for, in part, through said Tax Allocation District.
The design renderings of the new "Canal District," by Sottile & Sottile Urban Design, were sure pretty. But seriously: Streetcars on the Westside? Will each one come with a cop? No wait, never mind, scratch that...— Jim Morekis
Joe Biden's port authority
Things got a little presidential around here in September, when Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to the Port of Savannah.
The VPOTUS came to town as part of a tour of Eastern seaports and to throw his support behind the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP). Heralding the project as a vital cog in Georgia's economic engine, he encouraged political collaboration to "get this done, come hell or high water."
The project will dredge the Savannah River from 42 to 47 feet in order to accommodate a fleet of new, gargantuan freighter ships that will soon be calling on U.S. ports. To fund the project's $652 million price tag, the Port of Savannah is competing with Charleston and other Eastern cities for federal dollars currently being divvied up in Congress as part of the Water Resources Reform Development Act (WRRDA).
Environmentalists continue to contend that over half of the SHEP funding is earmarked for projected environmental damage, indicating the river is ill-suited for expansion. A suit brought against the project by the Southern Environmental Law Center was settled in May, but a South Carolina court ruled the project can't go ahead until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides proof that the dozen, 18-foot Speece cones that will be employed to moderate low oxygen levels will actually work.
Earlier this month, the VPOTUS lead a U.S. delegation to the Panama Canal, which is undergoing its own massive expansion. Atlanta mayor and Georgia Port Authority booster Kasim Reed went along, and later told the Associated Press that he and Georgia lawmakers are watching Congress closely to make sure SHEP doesn't get eliminated from the list of federal water projects.
The raising of the projects' original 1999 spending limit has already passed the House and Senate, but a final version has yet to be announced. Once the WRRDA takes effect, Reed promises that the port will partner with the Corps to begin the 37-mile dredging, regardless of how much in federal funds have been committed.
"We're hearing we're going to have a bill to go to the president prior to Dec. 31," said Reed.
Stay tuned. — Jessica Leigh Lebos
That time Congress shut this whole thing down
October 1 brought a dark cloud over America when Congress refused to pass a continuing resolution to fund federal agencies and lift the debt ceiling, effectively shutting down wide swaths of the federal government.
While such temporary funding bills are nothing new, this year's stalling appeared a clear tactic to delay the implementation of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
The shutdown forced about 800,000 federal workers off their jobs and suspended most nonessential federal programs and services, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture's Women Infant and Children program and all national parks, museums and memorials.
Protests ensued all over the country and demonstrators converged on state capitals. On Oct. 12, outraged citizens stormed barricades blocking the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
Locally, thousands of civilian employees from Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield were sent home, as well as those who work at Fort Pulaski and other federal sites.
"They gave everyone two hours to change voicemail, clean up and secure the buildings," Amy Ochoa, a ranger at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. "We were prepared to stay closed for a couple of weeks, but we were watching the news like everyone else."
Ochoa, who has been overseeing visitors' services and tours at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife-supervised refuge for 15 years, worried about the lapse in pay and getting behind on bills.
"Most federal employees are modestly paid, living pretty close to paycheck to paycheck," she said. "I just wanted to get back to work."
Though she and the rest of the furloughed employees were eventually reimbursed for lost time, Ochoa says it was far from a paid vacation.
"I did a lot of housework."
The shutdown lasted until Oct. 16, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agreed on a plan to fund the government through Jan. 15 and lift the debt limit through Feb. 7. President Obama signed the bill at 11:30pm, allowing federal employees to return to work the following morning.
The Affordable Care Act has been in effect since Oct. 1, though its website, healthcare.gov, has been plagued with bugs.
Last week Congress prevented another shutdown in January, passing a new budget deal that funds federal agencies through the 2015 fiscal year. — Jessica Leigh Lebos