Savannah’s city manager search: the plot thickens

I’ll be posting a number of times this weekend about Savannah’s search for a new city manager. We have a weak mayor and council form of city government with a strong city manager — one who is in charge of pretty much all day to day operations.

The names of the 5 finalists for the position will be released at 4 p.m. today, and the candidates will participate in public forums next week.

Since she took over as acting city manager after the departure of Michael Brown, Rochelle Small-Toney has seemed the heir apparent for the permanent post, but there were new questions today about her fitness for that position, related to the refusal of an insurance company to bond her, as is required by city charter for that position. The details could be relatively minor, but so is the $50,000 bond — that’s not much for a position of such importance and which carries an annual salary of around $200,000. You can read more about the bond issue in today’s Savannah Morning News.

The aldermen did Small-Toney no favors by seeming to fix on her so quickly after the departure of Brown. She was largely an unknown entity in Savannah, and the seemingly sudden elevation — without any apparent due process — raised suspicions of all sorts of things, especially that the current city council just wanted someone they could easily control. (I use “seemingly” and “apparent” quite intentionally — there may have been all sorts of thought put into the position, but it was not communicated to the voting public.)

Small-Toney also raised issues that many would like to pretend not to exist, or — alternately — to make more important than they are. I’m talking about the racist and occasionally misogynist tinge to some of the complaints about her. You can deny that race and sex are factors at all, but I encountered a whole string of problematic statements in private conversations, emails, internet posts, and other places. For many in Savannah, the transition from white leadership of the city to black leadership has created unfounded uneasiness, which seems to me to have spilled over in some of the opinions of Small-Toney.

Right after she took the top spot on an interim basis, I was inundated with readers and friends telling me that much of the city staff was dissatisfied and that several key players would leave. Well, I’ve been a critic of the insularity of the city bureaucracy for years, so what’s wrong with a shake-up? In this economy, if city employees think they can find better jobs elsewhere, they SHOULD leave and make room for new blood. This key complaint about Small-Toney seemed to me to be one of the best reasons to welcome her.

In many conversations of which I was a part, Small-Toney was soon being assigned wildly disproportionate blame for all sorts of problems that were created during the Brown administration: the budget shortfalls, the inappropriately high raises for some top-level employees, the city’s apparently misguided real estate moves regarding Savannah River Landing and the new cultural arts center and the arena, the bar cards, the city’s outsized pension liabilities, etc., etc., etc. I never quite understood why Brown was considered immune to criticism by so many Savannahians, who for years preferred to blame these problems on the mayor and council, and then switched their focus to Brown’s temporary successor.

If I had to bet right now, even without knowing how the bond issue will be resolved or who the other candidates are, I’d say Small-Toney remains the odds-on favorite for the position. If she gets it, she’ll need to be much more public and much more accessible. We have some tough, tough decisions that lie ahead of us, mostly because revenues are going to keep lagging for the next couple of years (since property tax values are determined by sales from the previous calendar year, and since prices are still falling in many areas, the city’s budget is going to be constrained for several more years). The city manager will need to instill confidence on fiduciary matters even among her critics.

More later.

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