Police chief complains about leaks (water, not secrets), is threatened with gag order and possible firing

When I first saw the headline on SavannahNow this morning — Savannah city manager threatens police chief’s job — I assumed that city manager Rochelle Small-Toney was taking a hard line regarding Willie Lovett’s performance.

After all, there are a number of things to be concerned about, including a recent spike in crime in Savannah, some serious issues involving officer conduct (see here, here, and here), and the chronic understaffing of the animal control unit.

But today’s article is all about an article that appeared earlier in the week: Chief Lovett: Police headquarters a “hellhole”. In the piece, Lovett complains about leaks and mold at the downtown precinct office on East Lathrop as well as the headquarters at the corner of Oglethorpe and Habersham.

So that led to the events chronicled in today’s piece:

Police Chief Willie Lovett will be fired if he talks to the media about building conditions or anything else without proper authorization, City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney told City Council members Thursday.

“If it happens, this person will be looking for a job, that I can assure you,” she said in a pre-council session Thursday.

[. . .] Mayor Otis Johnson was upset about Tuesday’s article, saying it shed a bad light on a council that had “never refused a legitimate request to fund public safety.” If Lovett did not get the answers he needed from the city manager, he should have contacted council members, he said.

He added that under former City Manager Don Mendonsa, any employee who had talked to the media would have been fired.

That’s when Small-Toney made her statement.

She distributed two memos. One outlines protocols for city employees, like Lovett. The other reminds council members that she will try to keep them informed, and that she would like them to notify her when the media calls them.

So the city manager, who already faces a great deal of suspicion and distrust because of the deeply flawed political process under which she was hired for the city’s top job, wants to limit media access to city employees? And she thinks it’s a good idea to follow the lead of the mayor in publicly threatening to fire Lovett, who in spite of the problems noted above is probably the highest regarded top level employee in the city bureaucracy?

Just when it seemed that Small-Toney was making inroads in terms of public opinion — a number of business leaders have publicly praised her efforts — she responds like this?

Now, there are obviously some backstories here, and maybe Small-Toney had already discussed with Lovett the quandary over precinct locations and conditions. Maybe he went to the media to try to force her hand. Maybe she felt it was a direct challenge to her authority. If any of those things are accurate, she needs to detail them to justify her threat to fire Lovett.

We do know the following:

  • SPLOST funds were supposed to pay for an arena and attached public safety headquarters (why it would be a good idea to pair those things is beyond me), but the economy tanked, sales tax collections plummeted, the arena was put on the back burner, and nobody seems to mention the public safety headquarters anymore.
  • The previous police chief and previous city manager engineered the purchase of a strip mall on Waters Avenue for new precinct facilities, but structural concerns apparently mean that it would have to be demolished rather than reused. And Small-Toney and Lovett seem to be raising similar — and valid — concerns about moving both the downtown and midtown precincts so far east.

So there are significant infrastructure issues regarding police offices that we’ve known about for a while.

Should Lovett have gone to the press rather than talk candidly behind the scenes with Small-Toney and members of council? Well, maybe he did talk candidly with them and got nowhere. In that case, talking to the press seems entirely justified.

And why has there apparently already been so much money spent to repair leaks if the leaks are still there?

And does any action or statement by Lovett rise to the level of a firing offense? Former chief David Gellatly sure doesn’t think so, as he said in today’s article:

County Commissioner David Gellatly — chief of Savannah police for
20 years — bristled at the notion.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” he said. “He’s got his hands full, he’s trying to do his job. The last thing he needs is those piss-ants at City Hall on his case.”

When Gellatly was chief — before Johnson was mayor — he said his budget each year included a request for new headquarters. Almost every year, he said, the city had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to get the roof fixed.

The first job of the new mayor and council in January 2012 will be to decide on a contract — or not — for Rochelle Small-Toney. With the events of the last few days, the likelihood of her staying on the job has certainly declined.