Savannah City Manager has created her own problems

After some investigative work by the Savannah Morning News’ Lesley Conn raised serious questions about his qualifications. Savannah’s emergency management director has been “terminated”, according to Mayor Edna Jackson moments ago at a special session of City Council.

Moments later, council entered executive session for the purpose of discussing personnel.

Ben Johnson had at least three things listed on his resume that called into question both his qualifications and his credibility. He claimed to have a specific certification that he did not have, and he claimed at first to have completed two Masters degrees and later claimed that he he was completing them at specified future dates.

Did no one check the college transcripts before hiring him for a $90,000+ job?

I’m most disturbed, however, by City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney’s memo to City Council from last Monday responding to the issues raised by the Savannah Morning News.

In the memo, Small-Toney acknowledges that council is already aware that the SMN had requested documents surrounding Johnson’s hiring. She apparently did not use the time between the request and the SMN article to check on Johnson’s actual qualifications; instead, on Monday evening, she decided to rationalize the obvious errors in his paperwork and to blame “this apparent campaign being waged by the newspaper.” Those were the closing words of her memo.

That attitude seems perfectly to match the tone noted by alderman Tony Thomas in Conn’s article from Monday:

Alderman Tony Thomas said the questions about Johnson’s background “were entirely unacceptable.” He called the salary increase “highly unusual” and said it is another example of the questions being raised by some members of council about recent hires and salaries.

While personnel decisions fall under the authority of the city manager according to the government’s charter, Thomas said he believes the actions exceed the confines of her authority because it has direct budgetary impact.

“We are going to have to address these issues with the city manager before the relationship further erodes,” Thomas said.

Council’s previous attempts to learn about unusual pay increases or other personnel matters, he said, “have been met with a defensive posturing that is not conducive to our working relationship.”

Small-Toney did an equally bad job managing the advance media questions in the recent controversy about her sloppy reporting of travel expenditures.

Coupled with revelations that I first heard today about delays and other serious improprieties in the city’s purchasing department (I suspect we’ll read more about those tomorrow in the newspaper), the city manager has had a really bad stretch. There wasn’t anything in the tone of the just completed session to suggest that council is prepared to terminate her, but it’s clear that there are increasingly serious questions about her leadership.

A city manager form of government invests a great deal of power in a single individual, and it’s imperative that that person retain the confidence of a wide swath of the citizenry. Small-Toney’s “defensive posturing” — to quote Tony Thomas — is quickly eroding support among those of us who were willing to give her a chance.

UPDATE to this post at 8:07 p.m.: The city manager has been officially “reprimanded” by the mayor and council; she will be subject to a comprehensive performance review in 3 months.