Savannah city manager saga nearing an end — for now

There are still details to be worked out, but Rochelle Small-Toney will be Savannah’s new city manager, with no “acting” or “interim” in front of her title.

The question that Savannahians should be asking right now is this: why didn’t they take the compromise?

Two weeks ago, Mayor Otis Johnson proposed a compromise that was actually less generous to acting city manager Rochelle Small Toney than the one I offered here on Feb. 2nd: “City manager search — is there a way forward?” Essentially, the mayor’s compromise would have kept Small-Toney on as an interim until January, when the new mayor and council (elections are this fall) would launch a new search. That compromise was rejected 5-4.

I understand that some aldermen were concerned that council would backpedal on bonding requirements if they accepted the compromise at that time, but what did they think would happen? By offering the compromise, Otis Johnson was essentially admitting that choosing Rochelle Small-Toney as the new city manager with a council split along racial lines would be detrimental to the city. As I and others noted, that compromise was far from a perfect option, but it was obviously the best path. By not accepting that entirely reasonable offer, the dissenters set the stage for yesterday’s vote along racial lines.

Now, what happens from here? I can pretty much guarantee that some segments of the city are going to stay hopping mad until this fall’s election. They are going to work hard to elect a white mayor, and it’s possible they could succeed if the polarizing rhetoric continues until November. I have a hard time seeing that anger sustained, however, and Small-Toney now has the rest of 2011 to win over a broader cross-section of the community.

Over the next couple of weeks, it will be crucial to see how long a contract council offers. A long contract will only inflame passions more. As I did a few weeks ago, I’d suggest an 18-month contract. That would give Small-Toney time to prove her worth. That would also give time for a search if a new council decides in January that Small-Toney is not a good fit for the city.