How should Savannah City Council respond to growing controversy over City Manager’s travel spending?

On Sunday, Lesley Conn reported in the Savannah Morning News: Savannah City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney’s travel reports violate city policy.

I praised and briefly summarized the article for Peach Pundit.

In a nutshell:

A review of City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney’s travel expenses for the last 18 months shows she was reimbursed for expenses supposed to be covered by per diems, has been reimbursed without providing final receipts and, in one case, submitted a handwritten note for a $150 reimbursement four months after a trip.

Those practices and others violate several rules within the city of Savannah’s travel policy, including requirements that receipts be submitted for reimbursement and that travel reports be submitted five days after a trip.

There’s lots more in Lesley’s piece.

So how should Savannah City Council members respond?

First, let me say that I think there has been a legitimately angry public response. At the same time, some seem to have taken that response to an irrational level. That’s entirely predictable, given Small-Toney’s contentious hiring.

An article in today’s Savannah Morning News hints at some steps that council members can take.

I’ll detail a few specific things here:

  • City Council could decide to fire her. If there are other less public concerns about spending and handling of money, then that could be an acceptable move. I do not think, however, that these offenses alone are reason for termination, even if other city employees have been fired for similarly dubious spending in the past.
  • City Council needs to look at specific items and take the blame where necessary. Was it a council member who insisted or signed off on the $150 shuttle in Atlanta? Were there other questionable expenditures made with the prior approval of the mayor and council?
  • All relevant details, no matter how embarrassing, should be made public immediately. They will all come out eventually.
  • Immediately hire an independent auditor to review the books of the City Manager’s office and, while we’re at it, the auditing department itself. Pay for that audit using funds budgeted for the City Manager’s office. Perhaps other cities have systems in place that we could mimic.
  • Establish a regular process of such audits — maybe every six months for the next two years and then annually after that.
  • It’s possible that employees might need more than five days to file for travel expenses. It’s possible that receipts could be lost, requiring sub-standard expense reporting. It’s simply not acceptable to do both of those things. If the filing is late, there’s time to get the paperwork in order. Requests for reimbursement that are both late and incomplete should simply be denied.
  • Council members should direct the City Manager to respond in detail in advance to newspaper articles that are likely to raise controversies like this. It’s inexplicable that Small-Toney would not respond to some of the questions Conn raised repeatedly before the article went to print. The after-the-fact responses in today’s article seem really incomplete to me, but they would have provided a little bit more context if they had been reported on Sunday. This is not the reporter’s fault; it is the city’s. Choosing not to respond in advance to potential controversies calls into question the City Manager’s ability to govern. By extension, it calls into question the mayor and council’s abilities too.
  • Ask Small-Toney for immediate reimbursement of the most obvious violations, such as the apparently relatively small sums for meal reimbursements that should have been covered by per diems.

I hope council members don’t just say how mad they are at the upcoming executive session. They need to clearly spell out conditions to respond to this crisis — ones that can set up better processes for the future.

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