Of race and leadership

Here’s my column today in the Savannah Morning News: “A city stuck arguing about race and leadership“.

I grew up in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s in a predominantly white town — there were literally only a handful of black students in the schools I attended. So, for a variety of reasons, I cannot remember legal segregation or recall the emotions that must have been experienced by those who faced such overt prejudice.

After I submitted that column to my editor, I read the following from Lesley Conn’s SMN piece “City Council shoots down compromises”:

[Alderman Tony] Thomas asked the mayor to repeat a statement he had made to the council. To Thomas, it showed that the search was “tainted and flawed from the beginning.”

The opportunity to hire a new city manager presented two opportunities, the mayor said. The first was finding someone who would carry on the tradition of fiscal responsibility set by Don Mendonsa and [Michael] Brown.

The second was that the search would break one of the remaining racial barriers in the city by allowing “a person who looks like me,” to be hired, Johnson said.

The two goals are not competing, he said, because there are people who look like him who are qualified to manage the city.

“I don’t apologize for it. I have no reason to apologize for it,” the mayor said. “I said it, and I’m saying it again.”

As he finished, several people in the audience murmured support.

One spectator, Henry Wilfong Jr., later addressed council and said even in his professional life and as the first black councilman in a city in California, he faced and still faces racism.

“So I just can’t forget it,” he said.

As I say in slightly different words in my column today, does it really make sense — in 2011 — for this one position to be viewed as a “racial barrier”? I can sympathize with and have a great deal of respect for those who broke true racial barriers, but I just don’t get it in this case. There are black leaders — mayors and city managers — in cities across the country.

And if Mayor Johnson and others were so set on finding a qualified black candidate for the position, why in the world did they exclude from final consideration Wayne Cauthen, who has FAR more experience in management and with big economic development projects than either of the two finalists? Lots of people did a selective reading of Cauthen’s resume and missed his pretty obvious qualifications; I profiled Cauthen here. In the city employee feedback presented to council, one upper level staffer questioned whether we might really want someone who seems to be looking for a place to finish out his career, which was the impression left by Cauthen. I’d answer, resoundingly, yes.

Looking ahead, I hope council will revisit the mayor’s compromise that  I have mentioned here before. And I hope Rochelle Small-Toney comes clean with the public about the issue of bonding. She is not legally obligated to do so, but she’s going to work under a cloud of distrust until she does.