What should Savannah expect from a City Manager?

I’m not going to rehash here the latest controversies surrounding City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney. Click here for my recent post with a variety of links in both the text and the comments.

Many residents seem to struggle with getting their heads around how our city manager form of government works, so I’ll begin with a few sentences as background.

The elected mayor and council members are paid relatively little, and they are supposed to have very little if any direct role in the day-to-day workings of the city government. The elected officials hire the city manager, city attorney, and clerk of council, but they don’t hire or fire anyone else. They set policy through ordinances, although often those proposed ordinances are generated by staff.

Still, elected officials have a great deal of power, including creating a vision for the city. A good example right now is the ongoing study of making Savannah a port for cruise ships. The mayor and aldermen are also key in their role as liaisons between voters and the city staff. The council also has final say over a wide variety of individual projects that require zoning code changes or variances. For what it’s worth, I think we should pay our mayor and council more, since the general public expects so much from them.

So what do we really need from a city manager?

First and foremost, we simply need someone who can manage a large number of employees and a wide range of services in a sometimes-unwieldy bureaucratic hierarchy. We don’t really need a city manager who is a visionary, or a great public speaker, or a charismatic leader. We need someone who can keep track of the money coming in and out, can maintain and improve city services, can oversee a small number of major capital improvement projects, and can generally improve quality of life and commerce.

I have been hearing a number of local businesspeople noting improvements under Small-Toney in Savannah’s notoriously business-unfriendly environment.

Also, the city seems on relatively sound budgetary footing, despite the plunging tax revenues of the recession.

The problem for Small-Toney right now is that a variety of recent issues are calling into question even the most basic management abilities. As I noted in an SMN column a few weeks ago, the last-minute withdrawal of an RFP for the new cultural arts center (approved by voters in 2006 as part of the current SPLOST collection) raised serious questions about her grasp of the time and expense that firms put into such bids. Sloppy travel expense reporting raised questions about her management of her own office. A month of problems in paying vendors, which we’ll be hearing a lot more about, also raises questions about the most basic management issues. The hiring and then firing of a highly paid emergency management director with questionable qualifications further called into question some simple management skills — and Small-Toney’s initial response questioned her ability to work with the local press or to understand the political demands of her job.

Of course, during all this, we’re seeing the city thriving in many respects. Tourism is booming; I’ve repeatedly noted major private investments all around the fringes of the core of the city; we’ve seen some really positive moves from city staff regarding community development issues like the recent approval of a system for community gardens.

I also gather that the city of Savannah will soon come out of the dark ages and have a website via which citizens can pay water and trash bills.

Still, on the current trajectory, Small-Toney is eventually going to lose the support of 5 members of council (that’s all it takes) if there is not new confidence in her ability to manage.

I will also note two areas in which Small-Toney has not shown any particular public vision: zoning reform and urban design. When the city manager position became open, an awareness of sound urbanist principles will be at the top of my list, just like it was a couple of years ago.

Now, given the nature of a city manager’s job, it’s not imperative that she or any other city manager have expertise in those areas. She simply has to surround herself with people who understand the importance of sound planning in Savannah’s history and in its future, give those advisors some power and influence, and be willing to take their advice.

But I’ve seen the opposite. For example, Small-Toney has seemed to work against the eventual adoption of the much-needed Unified Zoning Ordinance. Also, she dismantled the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority and has so far not replaced it as promised.

If and when the position comes open again, we should look for someone with a strong background in zoning and planning.

We should also look for a city manager who has a history of facilitating the growth of a wide range of small businesses.

Again, we don’t require a city manager with those particular skills as long as she is simply a good manager surrounding herself with a knowledgable staff.

For what it’s worth, I don’t relish the idea of a divisive, time-consuming, and expensive search for a new city manager. But city managers come and go around the country all the time.